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Drowning in a sea of plastic

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/file 2008

Plastic bags litter the median strips of America. In some trash-filled corners of Massachusetts, they cover the ground like a layer of topsoil. Flushed out into the ocean, they combine with other garbage into massive rafts of refuse, killing marine life. That’s why towns from the outer Cape to the Berkshires are seeking ways to reduce this serious environmental threat. But they’d do well to follow the example of other municipalities that have been successful in coaxing consumers to switch to reusable supermarket bags.

Tomorrow, Provincetown residents will vote at a town meeting on whether or not to ban small plastic bags in their town. Under the proposal, restaurants and retailers would be banned from distributing single-use plastic shopping bags, such as those often found in supermarkets. The ban would only affect bags marked with recycling code number four; sturdier bags would still be allowed. The measure’s backers note that Provincetown is surrounded by water on three sides, making it especially likely that cheap plastic grocery bags could end up choking large marine animals and befouling the shore.

Backers of the proposed ordinance deserve support, but looking ahead, a full ban on all plastic bags may not be necessary. Instead, Provincetown should take a cue from Washington, D.C., and levy a fee on plastic bags. Town residents could even consider charging more than the 5 cents per bag that the nation’s capital charges as a way to further discourage their use — and collect revenue to help clean up pollution on the outer Cape in the process. Studies have shown that once a fee is charged, consumers quickly see the value of reusable shopping bags, and join the millions of families whose grocery habits don’t threaten the world’s fragile ecosystem.