Activist pushes for V.I. ban on plastic bags
Published: January 30, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - A local activist hopes renewing an online petition will spur community interest in making the Virgin Islands one of a growing number of communities that ban single-use plastic bags, which kill wildlife, pose a hazard to coral reefs and detract from the visual splendor of the territory's beaches and forests.
Rita De Ferrary, founder of the Virgin Islands Citizens Action Network, initially wrote and circulated the petition through the website thepetitionsite.com from March to May. It did not garner many signatures compared to other petitions sponsored by her organization, but De Ferrary decided to revive the issue again last week.
As of Tuesday evening, 425 people had signed it, though not all of the signers are from the Virgin Islands.
The impact of plastic bags on the environment has spurred similar bans in cities in 18 states as well as in China, Italy, Brazil and American Samoa, according to the website plasticbagbanreport.com.
"It has been estimated that over a million birds and 100,000 marine animals, including mammals and turtles, die each year from plastic debris," according to De Ferrary's petition. "Many of these marine animals that die are our very own Virgin Islands sea turtles, pelicans and whales that frequent our waters."
De Ferrary acknowledged that other options, such as imposing a tax on bags and making all retailers charge customers for the bags, had been used in some cities, but she said that "there's nothing that's going to work like a complete ban."
De Ferrary hopes the petition will gain momentum for a few weeks, and she plans to present it to Gov. John deJongh Jr. She also plans to provide draft legislation to senators.
Her proposal would apply to single-use shopping bags, but she hopes that such a ban would open the door to a more complete ban on all plastic bags, including garbage can liners.
"Locally, I think that we are somewhat behind the times when it comes to protecting the environment," De Ferrary said. "There are a lot of laws at the federal level, but in terms of local laws, we haven't done enough and haven't been specific enough."
Scientists estimate that every square mile of ocean contains about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. About 80 percent of the plastic blows over from dump sites on land and is not waste from cruise ships, according to a fact sheet by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Programme.
Plastic bags were the fifth most numerous item polluting Virgin Islands beaches, based on data from September's annual Coastweeks beach clean-up effort, according to Marcia Taylor, a local coordinator of the clean-up.
Taylor said the bags actually are much more problematic than the statistic would suggest, because they break down into smaller pieces and such debris would not be classified as a bag and tallied as such.
The break-down process is part of what makes the bags so dangerous to wildlife, as the ingestion of smaller pieces by marine animals means that plastic enters "the food web" and pollutes the food supply, according to Taylor.
"All of the organisms we see in the ocean have tiny bits of plastic in them, even in areas where there's very little humans, so it's easier to take plastic out of the waste stream before it breaks down because otherwise it would be impossible to get out," Taylor said. According to Richard Nemeth, a marine biologist at the University of the Virgin Islands Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, sea turtles, pelicans, frigate birds and certain types of fish die when they ingest plastic bags, which obstruct their digestive tracts. Those creatures often mistake the plastic bags for the jellyfish they commonly feed on, which can cause them to die a prolonged death of starvation.
The coral reefs also are damaged when plastic breaks down into smaller pieces and covers the porous surfaces of coral organisms, disrupting the absorption of nutrients, according to Nemeth. Sea turtles are legally protected from harvesting because of their status on endangered lists, and the elkhorn and staghorn coral species might be added to such lists, he said.
"If we act locally, we could have a big impact, because unlike some places off the Pacific that are exposed to 30-, 40- or 50-mile-wide gyres of just floating trash, it's not from an external source, it's locally produced," Nemeth said, referring to large rings of garbage that float in the ocean.
Sen. Craig Barshinger, chairman of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, said he strongly supports the idea of a ban. He said that the Virgin Islands has more trash production on a per capita basis because of the volume of trash produced by visiting tourists.
The ban would be something the local population could do to reduce its carbon footprint, and most islanders are "ecologically conscious" enough to embrace the ban, according to Barshinger.
"An island nation should be the first to reduce, reuse and recycle, as each object is more precious because it has to be brought here at great cost and over a great distance," he said.
Plastic bags already have become an issue for the local supermarket chain Pueblo, as the V.I. Superior Court ordered the stores in February to exhaust their last shipment of non-biodegradable plastic bags and to discontinue their use. The order was part of a plea deal reached after Pueblo was prosecuted for stealing $1.3 million in electricity from WAPA.
Although Pueblo still uses plastic bags, they have switched to an "oxobag." Made of a polyolefin plastic containing metal salts to shorten the degradation process, manufacturers claim the bags break down "within 12-24 months."
Shanice Norris, front-end supervisor at the Lockhart Gardens Kmart said her store uses between 2,000 and 3,000 plastic bags each week and that doing away with them certainly would be cost-effective.
"I don't think customers would be upset if we stopped using them, because Cost-U-Less and PriceSmart already don't use them. The items we sell are smaller, but I think it would still be a good idea," Norris said.
To sign De Ferrary's petition, go to thepetitionsite.com and search "Virgin Islands plastic bags."
-Contact reporter Amanda Morris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Contact reporter Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email email@example.com.
- Contact reporter Amanda Morris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.