Can environmental activists get one of south Louisiana's most progressive small towns to ditch its plastic bags?
So far, things haven't broken their way.
"To say they weren't warmly received would be an understatement," said Abita Springs Mayor Greg Lemons.
The plastics ban effort is led by a group that's part of the St. Tammany Parish chapter of Indivisible, a national grass-roots organization that promotes progressive causes.
The group went before the Abita Springs Board of Aldermen in March to ask the town to ban stores like groceries from using plastic bags, but the measure was unanimously defeated.
Leader Gary Simon is undeterred. He had originally intended to try to ban such bags parishwide, as other communities around the globe have done.
However, a lawyer counseled him to start a bit smaller to get his foot in the door. Abita Springs has a progressive reputation, with a professed goal to run entirely on renewable energy by 2030, so that's where Indivisible went.
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"This should be a no-brainer," Simon said in an interview. "We're killing our oceans."
Plastic presents a number of problems, said LSU professor Mark Benfield, who studies the substance's effect on ecology. Scientists often find plastic bags crammed into the stomachs of sea creatures like turtles and small whales that mistake them for jellyfish.
As with other types of plastic, ultraviolet light can break it down into tiny particles that are eaten by small fish. The bits of plastic can block their digestive tract and give a false sense of fullness, thinning their populations and knocking the food chain off-kilter from the ground up.
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"Plastic is killing our Earth. I said, 'Enough is enough,' ” Simon said.
However, Abita Springs was not prepared to take the plunge and go so far as to keep grocery stores from distributing plastic bags.
Environmentalists now hope they can persuade business owners to forgo their plastic bags without an official edict.
The Abita Brew Pub has donated some reusable bags to Indivisible to hand out at events like the farmers market to encourage people to bring their own bags when they go shopping. Simon said he hopes the restaurant will ditch plastic bags for carryout orders.
Brewpub owner Anthony Essaied said the decision to distribute reusable bags with his restaurant's name was partially a marketing move. For the time being, plastic is a much cheaper option for carryout customers because each bag costs pennies versus about 40 cents for one made of reusable material.
Nevertheless, he said he is looking at ways to reduce his plastic consumption, both for the good of the planet and because he expects the town will enforce a ban at some point.
"(The plastic bag ban) will probably pass sooner or later, which it probably should, I suppose," he said.
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Essaied noted that although there's been a focus on bags, stores rely on plastic for a lot more. He knows there are efforts around the country to switch to paper straws — which he finds flimsy and expensive — but his restaurant uses plastic for containers and other things, and no one seems to be in a rush to take those away.
Indivisible had hoped to get the backing of Abita Springs' mayor for its effort but so far hasn't gotten it. Lemons said he supports environmental causes but lives in the real world where plastic is a fact of life. He just encourages people to recycle.
The problem, Benfield said, is that plastic is notoriously difficult to recycle, often because food residue clings to it. Many bags just wind up in the landfill, where they easily blow away and enter the ecosystem.
The professor expects that eventually everyone will follow the example set by states and localities that have sought to limit plastic consumption.
"There are easy alternatives," Benfield said.
He recalled a recent trip to Toronto, where shoppers had grown accustomed to bringing reusable bags with them to the store. If they forgot, they had to pay extra for plastic bags.
Simon suggested Abita Springs pursue a similar program, with perhaps a 5-cent charge on each plastic bag. Should his measure pass, he recommended a six-month grace period for shoppers to acclimate themselves to the change and for stores to make their own branded bags, if they wish.
However, with city leaders against him, Simon will either need to change some board members' minds or flip a few seats in this fall's election. He said he hopes he can present a compelling case to limit plastic.
"The Earth cannot sustain this," he said.