Prohibitions or taxes on plastic bags have been adopted by a number of cities,… (Kevork Djansezian, Getty…)
Reporting from Seattle — High school students in Hailey, Idaho, have gotten more of a civics lesson than they bargained for since they decided to push for a ban on plastic shopping bags in their scenic ski community.
Fresh from the heady victory of banning plastic foam plates in the school cafeteria, the Wood River High School environment club turned its attention last spring to plastic grocery bags. Such bags are increasingly blamed for filling up landfills, polluting oceans and — in Hailey, anyway — becoming an eyesore along one of the prettiest highways in America.
The students launched an initiative drive, gathered signatures and managed to put a proposal to ban plastic bags on Tuesday's election ballot.
What they never bargained for, though, was that the plastic bag industry would not roll over as easily as the school cafeteria.
The campaign over the last few weeks has turned into a vociferous debate, with industry representatives taking out newspaper ads, buying time on television and radio, hiring a lobbying firm and starting a website, "Bag the Ban."
The students, who have raised less than $1,000, have fought back with letters to the editor, opinion pieces in the local paper and a march over the weekend in front of a supermarket.
"It just shows you that people can be bought off by these big, multimillion-dollar corporations. And while the kids are working so hard, they just try to paint a different picture," said Erika Greenberg, a teacher at Wood River High School and the environment club's advisor.
"These kids can't even vote. They're putting it into the adults' hands and saying, 'We really care about what's happening.' "
A number of U.S. cities have adopted prohibitions or taxes on plastic bags, starting with San Francisco in 2007. But in Hailey, a town of 6,200 people just south of famed Sun Valley, the City Council declined to adopt an ordinance when approached by the students last spring. The council told the students they would instead have to go through the cumbersome process of launching a ballot initiative, City Attorney Ned Williamson said.
"They came in very excited … but what I was more impressed with was, once it looked like they were going to have to go through the whole initiative process, that didn't stop them," he said.
Chase England, a junior who worked on the campaign, said students were looking for an opportunity to do more than talk about the environment.
Motivating him, he said, was a research paper he'd done on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling vortex of debris covering at least 270,000 square miles in the North Pacific Ocean. Students were further compelled to act, he said, by a guest speaker who told them of an uninhabited island strewn on one side with indestructible plastic washed up from afar.
"It was amazing to me that an island where nobody lives could be covered in our garbage," he said.
Students barely managed to get the required 157 signatures before the deadline to get the measure on Tuesday's ballot. That's when the big guns showed up, primarily aimed by Hilex Poly Co., which operates a plant that makes such bags in Jerome, Idaho — largely with recycled materials.
The Bag the Ban website argues that 125 jobs at the Jerome plant could be at risk if the ban passes. It also points out that some cities that have banned bags have seen an increase in plastic litter, and that paper bags take up a larger share of space in landfills than plastic ones do.
"I'm confident the students in Hailey who worked to put the proposed ban on the ballot did so because they think it's the right thing to do. I applaud their getting involved in the political process," Mike Schutz, manager of the plant at Jerome, wrote in a letter to the Idaho Mountain Express.
"I'd like to believe that with a closer examination of the facts, voters in Hailey will decide they do not want to inadvertently eliminate Idaho jobs, negatively impact global warming and put more trucks on the roads — all without decreasing litter," added Schutz.
But students have taken on Hilex Poly's arguments point by point. They say there is no evidence to show all the bags used in Hailey come from recycled materials.
"They've sent out two, maybe three bulk mailings to every citizen in Hailey. They've run an ad on Facebook. We're talking about multiple ads in the paper, on radio, on TV — they're really pouring a ton of money into this," England said. "We're writing letters to the editor, but we really just don't have the resources to hire lobbyists."
Lex Shapiro, another student working on the ban, said all the attention couldn't hurt.
"We like to think that all news is good news," she said. "Hopefully, people when they have it brought to their attention, it just makes them want to vote for us more."