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Mixed signals on plastic bags, recycling indicate we should do better by our habitat

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Mixed signals on plastic bags, recycling indicate we should do better by our habitat

Jun 23, 2022 | 12:03 am ET
By Roger Chesley
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Mixed signals on plastic bags, recycling indicate we should do better by our habitat
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Our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will be incensed by the decision to place budgets ahead of the environment.

Two recent news stories show that for every small step forward Virginians take to protect the environment, we often take one backward. The net gain is negligible. 

Since this is the only planet we occupy, we should do better. Future generations will curse us for our sorry stewardship of the air, water and soil. 

First the good: Officials in Virginia Beach, the commonwealth’s largest city, are considering whether to enact a 5-cent tax on disposable plastic bags. The City Council could vote as soon as July on a proposal, The Virginian-Pilot reported. 

Plastic bags take forever to break down. Fewer bags would mean less plastic debris in waterways, and reduce the harm to sea life and storm drains. It also would mean less plastic ending up in landfills. 

Now the bad: Chesapeake, the state’s second-largest city, will end municipal-run curbside recycling on June 30. The decision will mean – for the first time in more than a quarter-century – public curbside recycling will cease in the city. 

Instead, residents can sign up for “subscription-based” recycling services from private companies, costing $11 a month; it will cost even more to recycle glass. Or folks can schlepp their plastics, metal cans, paper and cardboard to about a half-dozen drop-off sites around the city. 

There’s no way the participation rate, now around 80 percent, will be anywhere close.

I live in Chesapeake, and several thousand of my neighbors had rallied against the pending switch since the city broached the possibility last summer. Some 70,000 households now use curbside recycling. 

Note to Chesapeake bigwigs: When something’s provided for free, or folded into the array of taxes that citizens already pay, you’ll have a difficult time convincing consumers to start forking over money for essentially the same service. 

It’s like newspaper websites giving away stories for free on the internet – sometimes for years – then demanding people pay for the same information later. You shouldn’t be surprised when consumers refuse.

Trust me on this. 

The fees on plastic bags mean there’s some hope on the environmental front. Since the General Assembly passed legislation in 2020 allowing localities to impose a five-cent tax on specific, disposable plastic bags, several cities and counties have chosen to do so. They include some of the larger ones in Virginia: Fairfax County, Arlington County and Loudoun County.

Officials and environmentalists hope the tax encourages people to bring their own reusable bags or use paper instead.

“Beyond the litter and the unsightliness of it, the damage to our storm system and storm drains was probably the main driver,” Nell Boyle, sustainability outreach coordinator for the city of Roanoke, told Sarah Vogelsong of The Virginia Mercury last year

Back to recycling. Officials in Chesapeake attributed their decision to end curbside pickup to costs, especially following higher fees from the private contractor; using some savings to fund pay increases for public safety employees; contamination of the materials in the bin; and the move by China in early 2018 to bar imports of recyclable materials. 

The latter was “a global game changer,” Earl Sorey, Chesapeake’s director of public works, told me this week. “The markets hit rock bottom at the time.”

He also noted a lot of what goes into the large, 90-gallon-plus carts shouldn’t be there. About 24 percent is trash. Some 18 percent is glass that’s ground up and used as cover at the regional landfill. 

So nearly half of the stuff in the rolling receptacle isn’t truly “recycled,” in laymen’s terms. 

I get out all of that. Yet the message from city officials is the environment is less of a priority than services like public safety, roads and K-12 education. 

That may be the right ranking, especially given the changes in the global market. Sorey said the annual savings from ending curbside recycling will be around $2 million.

But it’s a 180-degree turn from when Chesapeake began the program decades ago. The forerunner of the big-blue carts – 18-gallon tubs carried to the street – started in 1989, a Hampton Roads recycling official told me Wednesday. 

That’s what I used when I moved to the city in the late 1990s. Coming from Detroit, which only had a few volunteer-run drop-off sites, this was quite an improvement.

Nor do I get the city’s criticisms about the cost. Chesapeake is among the wealthiest localities in the state, with median household income of more than $81,000 and a 7.5 percent poverty rate. Census figures show the city outpaces the state on median income and is below Virginia’s poverty rate. 

Be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, by all means. Some services, though, should account for intangibles – like bettering our habitat.

Have communities in Virginia ended recycling since 2018? Sure, according to a list compiled by Wastedive.com, which tracks waste, recycling and landfill news. The communities include Franklin and the town of Abingdon. However, those places are a fraction of the size of Chesapeake’s 251,000 residents – and of its wealth. 

It’s a matter of priorities, I suppose. 

Our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will be incensed by the decision to place budgets ahead of the environment.

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