Shortly after moving there, I commented on the appalling litter in Dublin to a Canadian friend. She replied, “You should have seen it when I first got here. It is soooo much better now. I remember one day when I was waiting for the bus and this well-dressed lady next to me opened up her purse, removed her wallet and a couple other items, and then just dumped all the junk left in the bag right on the sidewalk in the bus shelter. Used tissues. Gum wrappers. Water bottles. I don’t think anyone would do that so cavalierly today.”
The litter reduction progress moved at light speed in my four years in Ireland, largely due to the bold action of the then-Minister for the Environment, Martin Cullen. He decided to impose a 15 cent tax on all non-biodegradable retail plastic bags. Seemingly overnight, the Irish citizenry adjusted–as that incredibly flexible nation does better than any other. Like my neighbors, I learned to carry around a reusable cloth sack (high quality ones were sold for a Euro in all grocery shops) or simply shove my purchases in whatever bag I was already carrying. “Nice” paper shopping bags were still prevalent in high-end retailers, but the miscellaneous small purchases all moved out of plastic.
And Ireland quickly went from a nation whose trees, shrubs, and fences used to be hideously festooned with flapping plastic shreds and sacks, to one where the sight of a random plastic bag rolling in the street became a rarity. Plastic bag use was reduced 90% and millions of Euros are being raised for environmental projects. It was a bold governmental act with a beautiful result.
In April, City Councilor Robert Consalvo proposed that Boston put a ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags. As I watch the first volleys in what is sure to become an endless jawboning debate over this eminently sensible idea, I kinda miss the sweeping powers Irish government ministers had to enact legislation. Representative democracy is a great thing, but sometimes pure common sense residing in a single individual ,with the wisdom and power to use it, is preferable.