I was waiting in the checkout line at a Missoula grocery store recently when a young woman in front of me asked for a plastic bag.

The young woman who manages that checkout line grimaced. Previously, she’d thanked me for bringing my reusable bags. I knew she understood the plastic plague and was surprised the young customer in front of me seemed oblivious. I wanted to say,

“Don’t you know dead whales are washing up on shores around the world because their stomachs are filled with 200-pound balls of plastic rope, fishing nets, cups, shopping bags, gloves, packing straps, tubing and bottles?

“Don’t you know that an island of plastic twice the size of Texas is floating in the Pacific Ocean and growing rapidly?

“Don’t you know that people are wading in waste-deep plastic on shorelines throughout the world and, as plastic breaks down, it creates ocean smog?

“Don’t you know that if pilgrims threw away a plastic bottle cap in 1620, that plastic would still exist?”

I wanted to say all those things, but of course I didn’t. I learned about this scourge during my last session in the 2019 Montana Senate. A Sussex School first grade class had asked me to sponsor legislation requiring sit-down restaurants to offer plastic straws only upon request. In researching the bill, I learned that floating plastic straws are inhaled by turtles, resulting in their agonizing deaths.

My second 2019 "plastics" bill would have required us to pay 5 cents whenever we accept a plastic shopping bag. The proceeds would have funded recycling programs and recycling education in Montana.

We consumers can turn down plastic straws and insist restaurants and bars don’t provide them unless we ask for them. We can insist on legislation restricting use of plastic shopping bags. Hundreds of other jurisdictions already ban them or require shoppers to pay 5 cents whenever they receive them. My plastic straw and plastic bag bills failed in 2019, but we can insist on passage in 2021.

We can limit our use of plastic. Fortunately, at the Good Food Store, we can refill our clothes detergent, lotion and shampoo bottles, rather than buying new plastic containers. We can say “never” to plastic water bottles. We can boycott Amazon, which over-packages everything and threatens to fire employees for speaking out about waste and climate change. We can join organizations that are fighting for biodegradable products. We can continue to mulch our vegetable waste, garden and recycle everything that is recyclable in Montana.

Petrochemical, giant food, drink and beauty companies are continuing to invest in plastics. Fracking in the U.S. created ultra-cheap shale gas. Mega-corporations are making billion-dollar investments in new cracking plants to create ethylene, the building block of most plastic, from gas. Shell is building a $6 billion cracking plant near Pittsburgh to produce 1.6 million tons of plastic a year. A Chinese company is building a huge facility in Louisiana. Dozens of plants are planned for the U.S., India, China and the Middle East. Plastic production is expected to increase 40% by 2030.

I read recently that a Mexican company is working on reconstituting plastic waste into building materials for houses. Mexico produces utensils made from avocado seeds. Sugar-based utensils are available.

Let’s pledge to walk back out to the car to get our reusable grocery bag when we forget it. Let’s pressure the Montana Legislature to draw a line in the sand on the use of disposable plastic in our state. That’s the least we can do for our poor, troubled planet Earth.

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Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, represents Senate District 46 in the Montana Legislature. 

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