oregoing plastic bags at the grocery and other stores is not a new idea. By now we’ve all learned that plastic is made from petroleum, a finite resource, and that the ubiquitous bags make their way into our waterways and the digestive systems of many animals.
But the extent of plastic bags’ impact is shocking. I invite you to read the following 10 facts about plastic bags and to continue on to the ‘What You Can Do’ section at the end. There’s more you can do than you might think.
10 facts about plastic bags pollution:
- Well over a billion single-use plastic bags are given out every day. Americans throw away about 100 billion of these bags per year, the equivalent of about 12 million barrels of oil.
- The production of plastic bags requires petroleum and sometimes natural gas. Both are finite resources. Prospecting and drilling for these resources contributes to the destruction of fragile habitats and ecosystems around the world.
- The manufacture of plastic bags adds many tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere every year.
- Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food. Turtles think the bags are jellyfish, their primary food source. Once swallowed, plastic bags choke animals or block their intestines, leading to an agonizing death.
- On land, many cows, goats, and other animals also suffer and die from accidentally ingesting plastic bags while foraging for food.
- All the plastic bags that have ever been made still exist. They never ‘biodegrade.’ Instead, they ’photodegrade,’ breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. In the oceans, the plastic breaks down into such small pieces “that they can be consumed by the smallest marine life at the base of the food web,” according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme.
- Only about 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled around the world. In the U.S., we recycle 2 percent of them.
- While many plastic bags will likely spend thousands of years in landfills, the bags are so aerodynamic that many, even if disposed of properly, blow away, clogging storm drains and washing into rivers and bays, eventually finding their way into oceans.
- Bits of plastic bags have been found in the nests of albatrosses in the remote Midway Islands of the Pacific Ocean.
- In the Pacific Ocean, about 800 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands, is a swirling mass of trash, much of it made of plastic bags. This ocean dump is about twice the size of Texas. “It’s an endless stream of incessant plastic particles everywhere you look,” says Dr. Marcus Eriksen of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which studies plastics in the marine environment. “Fifty or 70 years ago there was no plastic out there.”
Fortunately, some governments are taking action to stem the tide of this terrible legacy we are leaving the planet and its creatures. Ireland, South Africa, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Taiwan, not the countries one usually thinks of as environmental leaders, have banned plastic bags. In Bangladesh, at least, plastic bags posed a serious and possibly immediate danger to humans. Bags had choked drainage systems in this flood-prone country, and so were banned in 2002.
In the U.S. some cities are taking action. San Francisco and Oakland have outlawed the use of plastic bags in large grocery stores and pharmacies. In Seattle, voters are deciding today [voters rejected the 20 cent fee, 58-42%] whether to uphold a decision last year by the mayor and city council to charge shoppers 20 cents for every plastic or paper bag they use in stores. If the decision is upheld, shoppers can simply avoid the fee by using their own bags when they shop.
The United Nations Environment Programme is calling for a worldwide ban on plastic bags. A great idea, I think. When I searched the Web, however, for organizations working for such a ban, I found nothing. If Earth Connection readers know of any such organizations, I would appreciate knowing about them, so I can publicize them here.
In the meantime, there are many things you can do to help, when shopping, at home, and at work. These suggestions come from Bay Nature, a San Francisco area organization.–April Moore
What You Can Do To Reduce Plastic Bags
Bring your own:
- durable reusable bags, baskets, and containers for shopping at all stores
- reusable lightweight cloth bags for produce
- mug or cup for take-out coffee, tea, smoothies, etc.
- reusable storage containers from home for restaurant meal leftovers
- food from home in place of buying takeout
Avoid plastic packaging.
Avoid buying bottled water; the caps are not recyclable and their size and shape increase the likelihood they will end up in the ocean.
Buy products with minimal or truly recyclable packaging:
- beverages and foods in glass containers with metal lids (and reuse the glass containers)
- berries in paper pulp baskets
- meat from the butcher counter and cheese from the deli counter–and ask that they be wrapped in butcher paper or waxed paper
- cream cheese packaged in foil rather than plastic tubs
- margarine in paper-wrapped cubes rather than plastic tubs
- powdered laundry detergent in paper boxes rather than liquid in plastic bottles (but watch out for plastic bags inside the boxes)
- toilet paper packaged in paper
- bar soap instead of liquid soap in plastic bottles
- wine in glass bottles with natural cork rather than plastic stoppers
- pet food and cat litter in paper bags or boxes
- nursery plants in pressed paper rather than plastic pots
Buy in bulk:
- Buy foods like grains, seeds, nuts, beans, flour, pasta, cereal, crackers, cookies, tea, coffee, olives, etc., in bulk, and bring them home in your own containers or durable reusable bags.
- Buy personal care products like shampoo and body lotion in bulk by refilling your own containers (some stores with large bulk sections carry personal care products in bulk).
- Avoid buying individually wrapped or single-serving foods like cheese slices, pudding, juice in boxes, etc.
If you can‘t buy in bulk, buy items in larger quantities to reduce packaging.
Avoid buying disposable plastic products like razors, pens, lighters, diapers, etc.
Buy used items when possible.
Fill your own stainless steel water bottle with tap water instead of buying bottled water.
Make foods from scratch if they usually come packaged in plastic (salsa, applesauce, yogurt, etc.).
Use non-plastic utensils and picnicware:
- glass or paper drinking straws
- metal utensils, plates, and cups for picnics
Use cloth rags and napkins instead of paper towels and paper napkins, which are packaged in plastic.
- leftovers in glass canning jars or other durable, reusable containers
- dry items in waxed paper bags and aluminum foil instead of plastic bags and plastic wrap
- cheeses in an airtight container rather than plastic wrap
- lettuce in a dry, airtight container in the refrigerator
- hardy greens like collards and kale in an airtight container with a damp cloth inside in the refrigerator or in a vase or jar of water on the counter for up to a week
- spinach in an airtight container in the coldest part of the refrigerator
- ripe fruits (including berries) in airtight containers in the refrigerator
- fresh basil in either a vase of water or an airtight container on the counter for a week or more
Use paper bags or no bags at all for garbage disposal. If you must use a plastic garbage bag, choose one with recycled content.
For dish washing and household cleaning, use cloth rags, natural cellulose sponges, and loofa scrubbers instead of paper towels (which are packaged in plastic), synthetic sponges, and plastic scrubbers.
Dispose of dog and cat feces in 100 percent biodegradable bags or wrap them in old newspaper.
When a plastic item breaks, try to repair it instead of buying a new one.
In the Office
Replace plastic products with more sustainable ones:
- paper tape instead of plastic tape
- refillable tape dispensers
- fountain pen (refill with bottled ink)
- printer paper in paper-wrapped reams
- Refill toner cartridges instead of buying new ones.
Upgrade your computer instead of replacing it. And when you must replace it, take the old computer, monitor, keyboard, printer, etc., to an e-waste disposal facility. Plastic computer housings collected in this manner are more often recycled.
In Your Community
Give away rather than throw away plastic items you no longer use.
Pick up plastic litter when you see it in streets and waterways.
Contact retailers and ask them to stock products packaged in non-plastic recyclable and compostable materials.
Contact manufacturers and ask them to use compostable non-plastic packaging or truly recyclable packaging like glass.
Write to your legislators and support bills aimed to reduce plastic in the environment.