Plastic is prevalent in our lives. It fills our fridges storing food in individual containers. It frames our glowing computer screens and nestles our DVDs. It totes our groceries around when we lack a free hand. Unfortunately, plastic has a darker side. Plastic is made from fossil fuel sources, such as natural gas and petroleum. Toxic chemicals bleed into our water from the plastic bottles we purchase. Plastic is not biodegradable, therefore it always exists, crowding our landfills and polluting our oceans. You can combat the growing plastic problem with knowledge and a helpful guide, both found in Plastic Free (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012) by Beth Terry. Writer of the leading blog on plastic-free living, My Plastic-Free Life, author Beth Terry provides personal anecdotes, stats about the environmental and health problems related to plastic, and personal solutions and tips on how to limit your plastic footprint. Learn about the plastic bag problem and what you can do to cull these “urban tumbleweeds” from the landscape in this excerpt from chapter 2 “Plastic Bags (Why Are There Melons in My Shirt?).”
What’s Wrong With Plastic Bags?
Plastic bags have some unique problems. While their environmental costs are burdensome for communities and the planet, the cost of plastic bags for retailers is pretty low. Made from ethylene, a byproduct of petroleum or natural gas, plastic bags are so cheap and flimsy that cashiers use them freely, double bagging as a matter of course and often sticking just a few items in each bag. As a result, shoppers end up with piles of plastic bags spilling out of closets and threatening to take over cupboards . . . until we finally throw up our hands and either dump them in the trash or, if we’re lucky enough to live in an area where stores provide plastic bag collection bins, cart them back for recycling. Sure, some of us reuse plastic shopping bags to line our waste bins or to pick up dog poop, but the bags still end up in the landfill.
Even when disposed of properly, plastic bags are so lightweight and aerodynamic, they are easily picked up and carried by the wind. They can escape from trash bins, recycle bins, garbage trucks, and landfills, and end up littering the landscape. Blowing down the street, flapping from trees, clogging storm drains (costing municipalities millions of dollars in cleanup costs), and making their way out to sea, plastic bags have been referred to as “urban tumbleweeds” for good reason. And they persist in the environment, causing harm for a very long time.
Eating Plastic Bags for Lunch
A Google search on “animals eat plastic bags” brings up hundreds of heartbreaking stories and images from around the world. So many foraging cows in India have died from ingesting plastic bag litter that many of the states in that country have banned the distribution of plastic bags. In the United Arab Emirates, a veterinarian has documented images of camels, sheep, goats, and endangered desert animals dead from eating plastic bags. Whales wash up on our coasts, their bellies full of plastic. And endangered leatherback sea turtles mistake floating plastic bags for the jellyfish that are their main diet, ingesting the plastic that can then block their digestive tracts. In fact, a recent study of leatherback turtle autopsy records found plastic in one-third of the animals’ GI tracts, plastic bags being the most common item mentioned.
I wondered just how many marine animals died from eating plastic bags each year, so I called my friend Wallace “J.” Nichols, a marine biologist and research associate for the California Academy of Sciences. J. told me that while a lot of figures have been thrown around in the media, hard numbers are difficult to calculate, and the sad fact is that when most sea animals eat plastic and die, they sink to the bottom, unaccounted for. But possibly more significant than the individual animals that are killed by eating plastic are those that are affected indirectly. For example, when sea turtles eat plastic instead of food, their glucose levels drop, leaving them with less energy for migration and reproduction. Females can’t lay as many eggs, and fewer new sea turtles are born. “When you connect the dots,” J. said, “you realize that plastic pollution may cost millions of potential sea turtle lives.”
Plastic Bag Problem: Recycling Plastic Bags
So what do we do with the plastic bags we already have after they are worn out and can’t be reused as bags anymore? Recycling options do exist. But recycling plastic bags is problematic. First of all, most municipalities don’t allow them in curbside programs because they clog up the sorting machines when mixed with other recyclables, a phenomenon I witnessed firsthand during my visit to a California recycling center. So to recycle them, you have to bring them back to the store or recycling center. In 2007, the State of California mandated that all supermarkets and large retail stores with a pharmacy provide plastic bag drop off bins to collect bags for recycling. But the program is not working. In 2009, California stores collected back only 3 percent of the bags they handed out. Where are the rest? You can’t convince me that 97 percent of the 53,000 tons of plastic bags handed out in California that year were used to line trash cans and pick up poop. My guess is that a lot of those bags are blowing in the wind.
So what happens to the bags that we do bring back for recycling? Like most of our plastic recycling these days, the majority of plastic bags and other film are exported to China. Of the bags that are recycled domestically, the bulk are sold to a company called Trex, which manufactures composite lumber out of recycled plastic film, scrap wood, and sawdust. But recycling plastics bags into plastic lumber is actually downcycling because it doesn’t reduce the demand for brand new plastic bags and because Trex lumber cannot be further recycled. Once Trex wears out, it ends up in the landfill. And while there is a growing demand for recycled plastic bags to be incorporated into garden products, crates, buckets, pallets, and piping, those markets are still very small.
In a truly closed loop system, plastic bags would be recycled into bags rather than secondary products. Hilex Poly is one company doing that. Through its Bag-2-Bag collection system, it recovers used plastic bags and incorporates them, along with other types of film and even some jugs and containers, into new plastic bags. In a phone conversation, company spokesperson Phil Rozinski insisted that the only thing stopping Hilex from making bags out of 100 percent recycled material is color. Because of the printing dyes used in plastic bags, you can’t make a white bag out of 100 percent recycled material. So the company encourages retailers to switch to tan or gray bags, which can contain more recycled content.
There is some dispute as to whether plastic bags can actually be made from 100 percent recycled content. But whether they can or not, the real question is whether we need to continue producing more plastic bags in the first place. Whether made from recycled material or not, plastic bags create havoc when let loose in the environment. What’s more, no matter what products we recycle our bags into, the fact is that plastic can only be recycled a finite number of times before it loses tensile strength and must finally be retired. While the same is true for paper, whose fibers get shorter the more they are recycled, paper will biodegrade at the end of its life. Plastic will not. Those huge molecules will still be around long after we’re gone.
So is it worth it to bring our plastic bags back to the store for recycling? Yes. But not until we’ve gotten as much use out of them as we can. Let’s first reduce the number of new bags we consume in the first place, reuse them as much as possible, and only then bring them back for recycling. Recycling is not a solution to the plastic bag problem. It simply keeps them out of landfills and the environment for a little longer.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2012.