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Weaning off plastic isn’t the end of the world

This may be the ugliest time of year. Winter recedes, but spring hasn’t caught up. Roads are covered with grime. Mud seeps through grass. And, oh, the litter. Everywhere you look, there is garbage – old pop bottles, crushed coffee cups, bits of filmy plastic bags flapping in trees.

Let’s face it: People are slobs, and we generally follow the easiest path. So when the supermarket gives us free bags, lots of people still instinctively load up their groceries in plastic. Peer pressure, environmental consciousness and fashionable totes only go so far.

Forgetfulness can trump all good intentions. It’s a small victory when I remember to bring my ragtag collection of canvas bags to the store.

I’m hardly alone. Tiviea White, 34, said she tries to reuse plastic bags. “Most of the time, I forget, so I end up buying new ones,” White told me Friday as she loaded up her trunk outside an ALDI store. She had brought two plastic bags and bought five more. Jugs of milk went straight into the car.

The ALDI on Elmwood Avenue in North Buffalo, I figured, was the perfect place to talk to people about a new plan by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz to ban lightweight disposable shopping bags in the county. The store, like Price Rite, has made charging customers for thicker, reusable plastic shopping bags part of its low-priced image. Customers are used to either bringing their own bags or shelling out a dime for new ones.

It’s like a microexperiment of what happens when you make it more difficult to fall back on plastic. In short, it hasn’t been the end of the world.

“It doesn’t bother me,” said Jenny Galante, a West Side resident. “I understand they’re not too great for the environment, so I do hang onto them and reuse them.”

Poloncarz’s plan is still just an idea. He’d like the county to study the environmental impact of banning lightweight plastic bags.

Luckily, there are good lessons already learned. Austin, Texas, has gone so far as to study its own ban on single-use shopping bags, and the results, after two years, are interesting.

Austin bans stores from handing out thin plastic bags but allows them to sell or give out thicker reusable plastic bags. Two years in, there were 75 percent fewer plastic bags in litter, compared with another community that had no ban. Overall use of plastic bags was dramatically reduced.

But there were other consequences. The study found that people still throw out the heavy-duty reusable plastic bags, which is a concern because they need to be used four or five times to overcome their bigger carbon footprint.

In Washington, D.C., meanwhile, an audit of a river cleanup fund paid for with a tax on disposable bags found mixed results.

There’s good evidence that banning disposable plastic bags would mean less litter. But there is a lot to learn from communities that have led the way. At ALDI last week, few people had big objections to banning disposable bags.

“I think it’s a good thing, honestly, because there’s lots of plastic waste everywhere,” said Neil Van Gorder, a physical-therapy student who was carrying out his groceries in two crumpled plastic bags he had brought with him.

As he walked away, he stepped on a crushed yogurt container in the parking lot. Plastic, I noted. He turned back. “Exactly,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”