At first blush, when I saw the county Legislature wanted limit the use of plastic straws and plastic cutlery I thought, “here we go again.”
Another stupid, nanny state move that won’t do anybody or anything any good but, instead, just make it harder for businesses and a pain the butt for customers, who get a milk shake at a drive through and have to circle back around to get a straw.
Generally, I’m of the mindset the smaller the government the better. There too many reasons for that to go into in 800 or so words.
And, the Albany County Legislature is infamous for overstepping the bounds of government into personal lives and private business — again, not enough room to go into here.
But, one of the great things about being in this business is you get to learn all sorts of things about all sorts of things.
Have you ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I didn’t until a couple weeks ago. That’s where all the plastic that ends up in the ocean ends up. Its floats between Hawaii and California and its existence is inarguable. How big it actually it actually is is hard to determine, but some estimates put it at twice the size of Texas. Even if it’s the size of Texas we should worry. Or even the size of Rhode Island.
How much garbage is the ocean is difficult, if not impossible to ascertain. How much plastic, thanks to tidal and atmospheric conditions, is in the Garbage Patch is impossible to measure because plastic doesn’t biodegrade for a couple centuries or more.
Well, a logical person would assume, that should make it easier to calculate and even easier to clean up. But, I also learned a couple weeks ago, plastic that does end up in the ocean gets beat around pretty good along its journey down smaller tributaries and rivers and into the harsh salt water and breaks apart to pieces the naked eye just can’t see.
It becomes microplastic. And no, that’s not a sci-fi monster from the 1970s ready to take on Godzilla.
Fine, it’s small, one might say, so what, it’s not bothering anyone and I want a straw with my milk shake.
Fish, not known for their smarts, don’t know the difference between tiny pieces of plastic and food so they eat it. Petroleum based plastic is worse for a living being than a steady diet of fast food. It doesn’t take much more than a basic understanding of the food chain to connect the dots and figure out what happens when people eat the fish.
Paper products, on the other hand, are by and large natural and start to biodegrade within a couple weeks. Within a couple years are absorbed back into the earth or other organisms and become part of a healthy cycle of things.
Even if the plastic stuff does make it into the landfill instead of ending up in the ocean, it doesn’t biodegrade any faster. If it’s recycled, great. But there are all sorts of issues with recycling now and a big part of that problem is China not wanting to buy our recyclable products any longer. China is also a major contributor to the garbage patch mentioned above.
I’m not a big fan of county government, and have written how easy it would be to just get rid of it entirely. How a county spends 90 percent of its budget is mandated by the state and most of that is in social services programs. The county is directly responsible for law enforcement, the nursing home and paving and plowing roads. Pretty much everything else is a state mandate.
I don’t think we need a county executive and 39 legislators to figure out how to plow a road.
In the end, though, the effort to remove plastic from circulation is not a bad objective, even if this legislation is flawed to the core — for starters enforcement is about impossible and while paper straws are a feasbible substitute, a paper-plastic knife and fork is a little trickier.
A little history, the Legislature was prepared to ban plastic bags before the state preempted the county and by 2020 everyone in the state will have to use paper bags or, better yet, re-usable ones. In Albany County, there is a bill to have consumers pay a nickel for every bag that is handed out at a retailer’s counter. Everything has a tax associated with it.
The bill I’ve been talking about would stop businesses from automatically handing out a straw or plastic cutlery and make the customer ask for them instead. I know if I don’t get a straw with my shake, I ask for one. If I’ve already left the drive thru, first I swear a couple times and then go back and ask for one.
I’m not sure why the county just doesn’t ban the plastic utensils like they did Styrofoam cups a couple years ago. It didn’t do any global good — you can still get a Styrofoam cup filled with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in Saratoga County — but it’s not a bad thing, either.
The same can apply to the restrictions on plastic utensils, I guess, but instead of driving across a county line to get a plastic straw, all you have to do is ask for it. Pretty useless, really.
Even if the state did it, anyone who really wanted plastic straws could just drive over the border Massachusetts — and New York state is a far cry from the size of Texas.
The county Legislature has a history of trying to overstep its bounds like trying ban on flavored tobacco, perfectly legal and already highly regulated products, and trying to mandate paid sick time. I guess, this one too, is along those same lines.
But, maybe by just proposing the restrictions will raise awareness and people will take it upon themselves to do the right thing and make an effort to cut down on their own personal use of plastic or, in the least, dispose of it properly after they get done with their milkshake.
Jim Franco can be reached at 518-878-1000 or by email at [email protected]