Environmental activist or active environmentalist?

(Republished from the La Conner Weekly News, March 4, 2020)

As a farmer and outdoorsman, I despise litter. Maybe it’s because the wind blows on Whidbey Island, but it seems we spend an inordinate amount of time picking up litter that has blown into our fields and woods: plastic bags, pet-food bags, flowerpots, cardboard boxes, even trampolines. But litter is an inanimate object, like the chair you stubbed your toe on – yelling at it doesn’t help. The real culprit is always human.


Our state imposes steep fines ($50 to $5,000) for littering, but it still occurs. Whether the cause is ignorance, apathy or just plain slovenliness, the changes needed to keep our earth clean starts with us. Here is a bit of irony that frames part of the problem. I was behind a truck carrying bundles of recycled cardboard. As the miles crept by, pieces were blowing off. I’m sure that the people who had recycled responsibly hadn’t considered their litter now on the roadside.


That brings me to the question of whether our state should prohibit retailers from providing customers with single-use plastic shopping bags. Senate Bill 5323 would do that and also require stores to charge for acceptable alternative bags. It was passed easily by the Senate in 2019, only to fail in the House. When the majority brought the bill to a vote on the floor this year, I knew it would pass even though I withheld my support.


I agree with the intent of the legislation, but I couldn’t support the plastic-bag ban as written. That doesn’t mean I view plastic as a non-issue. I am just not convinced that prohibition and a tax is the way to a cleaner environment. Plastics have their place, there are medical and some food applications where they are irreplaceable. But even they must be disposed of properly.


One definite outcome of this proposal is an estimated $4 million more revenue for state government. I would have felt a little better if we could have used that money for public education or mitigating the effects of plastic on our environment. But instead it goes into our general fund never to be seen again.


To be clear, I support the idea of keeping all plastic out of the environment but am skeptical that the policy would confront the epidemic of plastic pollution or make people more responsible. We need to have some uncomfortable conversations. Our recycling agenda and priorities are flawed, our secondary sewage treatment is inadequate, our lack of composting and management is problematic and our waste stream is a missed opportunity.


If state government must take another $4 million from the people in this way, let’s put that money toward addressing the human part of the equation. We can and should work together to reduce waste and be mindful of how today’s actions can affect future generations. But let’s not get in the habit of latching onto a feel-good title – while missing the bigger picture. Let’s commit to be more active environmentalists and less environmental activists.


-The Happy Farmer

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