[imageframe link=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/29388462@N06/23225422080/” ] Volunteers cleaning trash during Project Clean Stream cleanup in 2008. Photo courtesy of Kim Hairston.We were knee-deep in a small, murky stream in Richmond, Virginia, and our trash bags were prematurely heavy. Barely ten meters from our starting point at a road culvert, our bags contained countless food wrappers, Styrofoam cups, cans and cigarette butts. Somewhere, someone was also missing a ceiling fan blade; shrouded in a pair of boxer-briefs filled with sediment.

But of all the materials the team collected that day, the most abundant were plastic shopping bags. Trees lining the stream banks were decorated like fashion show models, and because much of our time and energy was spent wrestling shredded plastic “THANK YOU’s” from the branches, we did not finish our assigned route. Each year, volunteers like those who participate in hundreds of Project Clean Stream sites, repeat this story time after time across the watershed.[imageframe link=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/29388462@N06/23225422080/” ] Trash pile from a Save Back River Project Clean Stream 2011 cleanup. Photo courtesy of Back River Restoration Committee.The 2013 James River Regional Cleanup, sponsored by the James River Advisory Committee (JRAC) and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, had over 900 volunteers at 15 clean-up sites who removed 486 bags full of trash and 225 bags of recyclable materials, including plastic and glass bottles, aluminum cans, paper, and cardboard. They also removed tires and other large items, such as grills and deck furniture from the river. But, plastic bags continue to be a major problem on the river, as this year’s results showed.

While volunteer efforts like these are important to urban stream health, they also show that we are locked in a cycle of ‘end-of-the-line’ waste mitigation. Isn’t the ultimate goal of cleanups to have clean streams, so repeated cleanups are no longer needed? Achieving healthy local streams and a healthy Bay means stopping pollution at its sources, including perhaps the retailers that churn out plastic bags like they’re as harmless as autumn leaves.[imageframe link=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/29388462@N06/23225422080/” ] The Ocean Conservancy’s meticulous trash data shows the immensity of human impact on the environment.Americans consume around 100 billion plastic bags annually. And even if bag charges are not visible on your receipt, you pay for them indirectly; a hidden cost translating to over $4 billion per year for retailers.Taxpayers also end up paying the bill to clean up streams, parks, and highways as well, to the tune of millions of dollars annually.

The true impact of these plastic bags last generations, even though their practical life is limited to one or two uses. Besides the obvious effect of spoiling a natural view, or choking and trapping wildlife, the breakdown of plastic releases polychorlinated biphenyl PCB toxins, which build up in the food chain, in a process known as bioaccumulation. Large-scale plastic pollution is a nasty situation.[imageframe link=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/29388462@N06/23225422080/” ] Reusable bag campaign in Texas created a ‘Bag Monster’ from found grocery bags along the beach. Photo courtesy of Bring the Bag.In 2009, the Ocean Conservancy Coastal Cleanup found plastic bags to be second among the most common trash pollutants, at 10% of total trash. Locally, the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C. (one of only two rivers in the country classified as water quality ‘impaired’ due to trash), surged with 17,000 pounds of plastic items, more than half of which were plastic bags.

Plastic bag taxes are in effect in Montgomery County, MD and in Washington, D.C.; both impose a 5¢ per-bag tax. The Alice Ferguson Foundation, which hosts stream cleanups in and around DC, reported a 50% decline in plastic bags the first year after the MontgomeryCounty bag fee went into effect. According to the City, the number of single-use plastic bags used in D.C. had dropped from a monthly average of 22.5 million to 3 million per month by the end of 2010. Although the impact was not as immediate in the streams, the AnacostiaRiver has also begun to show increasing reductions in plastic trash with the bag tax now in its third year. Other cities in MD and states like West Virginia, Delaware and Virginia are considering imposing such fees, some have tried multiple times.

In Virginia, a 2011 bill would have required customers to pay 20¢ per bag used to carry products home. The latest version, introduced on Earth Day 2013, would impose a 5¢ per-bag tax. Businesses would keep one cent of the rate– two cents if they implemented a reusable bag credit program. These fees are meant to be an incentive to changing behavior– an incentive aimed at reducing bag consumption and thus pollution. In the interim, revenue from the tax would go to the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund, sponsoring pollution control projects and consumer education. If the fee works to change behavior, it would not generate revenue for very long.

There is plenty of opposition to any new fee, and one on plastic bags, is no exception. Some argue that plastic bags comprise only a small fraction of the total municipal solid waste (MSW) stream, so any tax on them wouldn’t accomplish much for water quality. Percentages can be deceiving. Weight can hardly reflect environmental damage (EPA measures the MSW in millions of tons). Simply because bags are feather-light does not mean they’re not abundant or harmful. Their ecological impacts far outweigh their… weight.Reusable bags are now sold at most stores for under $2 each, and many people can obtain them for free as promotions thus reducing the perceived impact on low income residents. Avoiding the fee mostly requires a little forward thinking, such as storing reusable bags permanently in your car and remembering to grab them before a shopping trip. Many local governments have also installed biodegradable pet-waste bag dispensers around parks.

All things considered, small changes in our behavior as a society can break the cycle of cleanup needed for many urban streams. As population grows around the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we are learning that when a change in our daily behavior is mirrored by millions of others, the impact can be amazing. We’ve already witnessed the impact of plastic trash, and we’ve witnessed the profound benefits that can come from 5 pennies worth of incentive.

It is worth supporting the states and localities that are considering a plastic bag fee as a part of their collective work to preserve healthy streams and nurse troubled ones back to life. The sooner we can reduce plastic pollution, the sooner our cleanup efforts can show more lasting results. Maybe next year, the 900 volunteers on the James River can actually finish scouring their assigned riverbanks.