Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: Dealing with plastic

The Legislature should restore the right of local governments to find solutions

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The Minnesota Legislature has the opportunity to right a wrong by repealing a law it passed in 2017 that prohibited local municipalities from enacting bans on one-time-use plastic bags from retail stores.

The Legislature enacted the 2017 law just one day before such a ban was to take effect in Minneapolis. Several other Minnesota cities were poised to enact similar initiatives as a basic first step toward meeting the growing scourge of plastic pollution in the environment.

The Legislature’s decision to intervene was an unpleasant reminder of the political power of industrial lobbyists in St. Paul. The plastics industry has poured millions of dollars into lobbying efforts across the country as the public has increasingly begun to recognize the environmental and public health costs and risks posed by the omnipresence of plastic in our modern world.

It’s not just a solid waste issue. As most Americans now understand, our momentary use of a plastic bag to transport our groceries home, or a plastic bottle for a quick drink of water, creates a potential health risk in addition to the mountains of permanent solid waste that is increasingly finding its way into our oceans.

While plastic does not decompose in the traditional sense, it does break down into smaller and smaller particles, eventually forming a kind of plastic dust that has entered our soil, our food and water supply, and even our bodies. Recent studies have shown that these tiny plastic particles are now found in more than 80 percent of the tap water systems in the world. That includes the water many of us drink right here in our own homes. Some of the plastic particles are so small that they can penetrate our tissues at the cellular level. Scientists have no idea what kind of health risks such plastic particles may pose to the human body, which means society is currently conducting an uncontrolled human experiment affecting almost everyone on the planet.

Combine these unknown risks with the already well-publicized concerns about plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and it’s no surprise that Minnesotans have begun to speak up in favor of concrete measures to begin to address this problem. They had organized in their own communities and were making progress, at least until the Legislature opted to intervene on behalf of the plastics industry. It was power politics at its worst.

Now, a measure known as House File 511, that would repeal the 2017 law and allow cities to enact bans on plastic bags, is advancing in the Minnesota House. We’re pleased to see that at least one Iron Range legislator, Rep. David Lislegard, of Aurora, is co-sponsoring the measure. As a former mayor, Lislegard undoubtedly understands the value of letting communities work out such issues for themselves without strong-arming from the Legislature and the plastics industry.

Area residents should be asking why District 3A Rep. Rob Ecklund (651-296-2190) hasn’t signed onto the measure and why Third District Sen. Tom Bakk (651-296-8881) isn’t co-sponsoring a companion bill in the Minnesota Senate.

Keep in mind, this measure would not enact a plastic bag ban in Minnesota. It would simply rescind the Legislature’s 2017 law that prohibited cities from listening to their residents and enacting bans of their own.

Banning plastic bags is no panacea, of course. The ubiquitous plastic bottle is a similar scourge on the planet, as is a long list of other plastic items, from the ridiculous plastic packaging that seems to encase so many products we buy these days to the plastic straws stuck, unrequested, into virtually every drink served at so many restaurants. It has all become such a routine part of our daily experience, that we forget to ask whether it’s really necessary and what the long-term effects might be.

We have a long way to go to address the problems posed by the thoughtless and wasteful use of so much plastic. Yet every journey starts with the single step. This is a first step that the Legislature can and should take this year.

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