As I read through the eco headlines each morning, one thing becomes increasingly apparent: single use plastic bags are nearing their end. Cities across the nation and the world have either already banned the bags, or are in the process of doing so. What has caused this sudden flurry of legislative attention? Could it be the facts?
About 1 million plastic bags per minute are used worldwide. That’s a lot of plastic. Most recycling programs don’t accept plastic bags because they clog up their machinery, so only about 2 percent of the 100 billion plastic bags used in the United States each year actually get recycled.
So what happens to the other 98 percent? Many of them end up in landfills where they will literally remain for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Plastic bags never truly biodegrade. In landfills where they are sheltered from the sun, it is estimated they can last for a thousand years with little to no structural change. In our oceans, however, it is a different story. Here, plastic bags photodegrade due to the sun. But in this case, photodegrading differs from biodegrading in that the plastic merely breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, never really going away. These small pieces still contain the toxins found in plastic bags, and can literally poison aquatic animals that ingest them. It’s not just these small particles that are dangerous to sea creatures either. Fully intact plastic bags floating on the surface closely resemble jellyfish, the critically-endangered leatherback turtle’s primary food source. According to Emily Sohn, writer for Discovery News, “Plastic can block a turtle’s gut, causing bloating, interfering with digestion, and leading to a slow, painful death.”
There is also a negative economic impact from the use of plastic bags. Retailers in the US spend about $4 billion a year to provide them to us at checkout, and of course, that cost is built into the price of goods we purchase from them. Clean up of plastic garbage is also an issue, estimated to be about $88 a year for the average taxpayer.
Yet, regardless of the issues and hazards described above, many bans have been stalled or blocked altogether by coalitions associated with the plastics industry. They claim jobs will be lost and local economies will crumble. For instance, just this August, plastic industry lobbyists were successful in defeating the state-wide ban on single use plastic bags in the California Senate, even though the House passed it generously. It’s just a matter of time, however, until the US will be single-use plastic bag free. It’s the only solution that makes sense.
For more information on this issue, of if you would like to get involved, check out www.facebook.com/RightBagAtYa, or http://www.facebook.com/TheBagMonster.
Californians Against Waste. http://www.cawrecycles.org/
Sohn, Emily. “Study Finds Plastic ‘Diet’ in Leatherback Turtles.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30144026/
Zerbe, Leah. “You Pay $88 a Year for ‘Free’ Plastic Bags.” http://www.rodale.com/plastic-bag-ban