DIY





The Plastic Bag Problem

The plastic bag problem looms larger every day as they litter our environment and kill land animals and endangered marine life.

| February 4, 2013

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.

jon
6/4/2018 9:36:59 AM

Plastic bags are not the problem, people and there irresponsible habits are. Towns also need to take the lead in providing responsible means for disposal. In my town we collect them at our recycle center and at one point we had a market for them. That has dried up but we still collect some for our Food Pantry to use. The rest are put in with our trash. The trash goes to a waste to energy plant were the trash from 73 towns generates a continuous 11 megawatts of power, The plant has incredible protections from emitting pollution to the atmosphere and all that goes up the stack is waste steam. The majority of the aweful pollution in the form of plastic in the oceans comes from shipping, natural disasters that sweep it out to sea and third world countries that still use the ocean for a dumping ground. You should all work with you towns and cities to develop real solutions to your trash. In our town recycling is mandatory and we collect, bundle and sell all of our recyclable products and provide means to recycle many other things that would be considered waste such as, waste wood to bio mass for furnaces, garden debris to wonderful compost, electronics to a firm that recovers the precious metals and so on. It can be done but it may take a generation. It needs to start in the schools, because it is the kids that will change their parents.


Anonymous
5/27/2018 9:44:11 AM

I am using this article to write an argumentative piece that I plan to present for my town to see if I can get a ban on them. I think that reusable cloth bags are the way to go, particularly the ones made out of recycled materials. This does somewhat overuse the argument of environmental impacts. It should have also included the repurposing of plastic bags and such, and other disadvantages. However, it was a fairly good article.


Anonymous
5/27/2018 9:40:26 AM

It was a pretty good article, but there was an overuse of the argument of biological and environmental impacts. Should have said more about the repurposing factors, as well as the fact that there people who use cloth toat bags, and never use plastic bags. I consulted this article so it could help with my article that I am currently writing about the issue of plastic bags. Not sure if I will use it.







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