Buncombe County must protect our communities from plastic pollution

Karim Olaechea


Are you sick of plastic pollution clogging up our rivers, littering our roadsides and trails, and getting stuck in our trees? Are you worried about how plastics and the additives used to make them are affecting the health of you, your children and the planet?

On Sept. 19, join MountainTrue, the Sierra Club’s Western North Carolina Group, the N.C. Public Interest Research Group and the Creation Care Alliance at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting at 5 p.m. to call on our elected leaders to take action on the growing problem of plastic pollution by passing a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags and plastic foam (better known by the brand name Styrofoam) takeout containers.

What a waste

Asheville and Buncombe County should take pride in our progress toward a green energy future. But as we transition away from coal, oil and natural gas, the fossil fuel industry is relying on plastics to maintain its profits. Petrochemical and plastics manufacturers are innovating ever more wasteful ways to package everything from single servings of almonds to individual toothpicks in a film of plasticized petrochemicals. Production of single-use plastics has nearly doubled since 2000 and will account for nearly half of oil demand growth by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency — which strongly recommends policies to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics.

Less than 10% of plastic gets recycled. It’s even worse with plastic bags and plastic foam, which can’t be recycled at home or at most recycling centers. In Buncombe County, our recycling center, Curbside Management, estimates that it spends approximately $10,000 each month removing plastic bags from its facility and sending them to local landfills.

The recycling bins at our local grocery store aren’t a much better guarantee. Last year, ABC News placed trackers in 46 bundles of plastic bags and dropped them off in the hard-to-recycle bins of stores across the country. So far, half the bundles ended up at landfills or trash incinerators. Three ended up overseas, likely also in landfills or incinerated. Only four of the trackers ended up in U.S. recycling facilities, and a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council admitted that the store drop-off concept “doesn’t work to the scale we want.”

Changing behavior

The only real solution is to reduce the use of plastic bags before they enter our waste stream. That’s why MountainTrue and our partners in the Plastic-Free WNC coalition are proposing a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags and plastic foam takeout containers that includes a 10-cent fee on paper bags. More than 500 local governments across 28 U.S. states have taken action to reduce plastic pollution. We’ve borrowed the best parts of those bills and drafted a model ordinance to provide the greatest environmental benefits at a relatively low cost to customers and taxpayers.

Buncombe County residents use approximately 132.4 million plastic shopping bags annually. Our ordinance would zero out the plastic shopping bags and cause a relatively minor increase — about 10% — in the number of paper bags used. On balance, our ordinance would significantly reduce the amount of pollution, waste and greenhouse gases created to help county residents carry their groceries out of the store.

It would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 43%, fossil fuel consumption by 86%, solid waste by 66%, greenhouse gas emissions by 83%, fresh water consumption by 32%, and energy use by 73.3% compared with how much we use to maintain the current status quo, according to MountainTrue’s calculations based on local figures and American Chemistry Council’s data. If county commissioners also adopted our proposed mandate that grocers use paper bags with at least 40% recycled content, that would reduce fossil fuel consumption by 6.7% and greenhouse gas emissions by 30% compared to virgin paper, based on MountainTrue’s calculations using the Environmental Paper Network’s calculator.

A 10-cent fee on paper bags is critical to changing behavior and helping people remember their reusable bags. Aldi already charges a fee, and Whole Foods gives shoppers a 10-cent discount for each bag they bring to the grocery store. Our ordinance would standardize those policies and make them more equitable by exempting customers using the federal food assistance programs EBT, SNAP and WIC. We’ve also spoken to officials in communities that have passed similar ordinances, such as Charleston, S.C. They’ve assured us that these ordinances are easy to implement, manage and enforce by government staff.

So, what’s stopping Buncombe County commissioners from passing a plastic bag ban? We don’t know. However, by refusing to take action on plastic pollution, they neglect their legal obligation under the N.C. Solid Waste Management Act — which prioritizes waste reduction at the source and mandates that local governments implement programs to address deficiencies and “protect human health and the environment.”

 Threat to health

Make no mistake — plastic bags and plastic foam are present in our environment and threaten human and environmental health. The plastics we pull out of our rivers from our forests don’t biodegrade; they break down into smaller pieces that eventually become microplastics. MountainTrue has a robust microplastic monitoring program. Our staff and volunteers have collected and analyzed water samples from the Broad, French Broad, Green, Hiwassee, Little Tennessee, New River and Watauga river basins for several years. We found microplastics in every sample from every region, even in otherwise pristine areas and protected watersheds. In the French Broad River, 40% of those microplastics were films derived from food packaging, tarps, candy wrappers and, yes, plastic grocery bags.

Once in our environment, microplastics make their way up the food chain and are even carried by the wind. They harm birds and have been found in at least 114 aquatic species, including the fish we eat. It’s estimated that we all breathe or consume approximately one credit card’s worth of microplastics every week. Microplastics have even been found in the human placenta and breast milk. Both polystyrene, a known carcinogen used in plastic foam, and polyethylene, used to make plastic bags, have been found in human blood. The effects of plastics are an emerging field, but studies suggest that microplastics could disrupt immune and endocrine systems, damage organs, increase cancer risks and affect pregnancy outcomes.

Plastics are also a significant contributor to climate change, which the National Academy of Medicine has called “one of the most pressing existential threats to human health.” In 2019, the Center for International Environmental Law estimated that the production and incineration of plastic added 850 metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — the equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants. This is expected to rise to 2.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year — or 615 coal plants — by 2050.

Time to act

Banning plastic grocery bags isn’t a silver bullet, but a critical first step. It’s also a broadly popular policy. A City of Asheville community survey found that more than 80% of residents and businesses that participated support banning plastic bags. On Aug. 15, the Town of Woodfin passed a resolution by a vote of 5-1, urging county commissioners to pass a ban on plastic bags, and, as of press time, the Town of Black Mountain was expected to do the same on Sept. 11.

Now it’s Buncombe County’s turn. Visit mountaintrue.org, join us on Sept. 19 and remind our commissioners that they have a legal and moral obligation to act. Let’s make it clear that passing a plastic bag ban might be the easiest and most popular thing they do all year.

Karim Olaechea is the deputy director of strategy and communications for MountainTrue, an Asheville-based environmental nonprofit organization.

Editor’s note: The Black Mountain Town Council voted unanimously Sept. 11 to support Buncombe County adopting an ordinance to reduce single-use plastics.


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