Oh the plastic bag, something so basic and innocuous, yet so dangerous and toxic to the environment. Before 1977, paper bags were a staple in retail outlets, including grocery stores. In 1974-75, giant retailers, such as, Sears, J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, Jordan Marsh and Allied began switching to plastic merchandise bags. By 1977, the fad had caught on and spread like wildfire to grocery stores, where consumers were given an option…paper or plastic?
Many consumers don’t think twice when carrying their groceries home in plastic bags, unloading and putting away their items and most, indiscriminately disposing of the plastic bags in the garbage to never, ever wonder where these plastic bags end up. Let’s find out.
As of August 2010 between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are being used each year worldwide. 50 million of those plastic bags end up as litter every year in Australia. There is a patch that floats in the Pacific Ocean called the “plastic soup patch,” because it’s just a covered film floating atop the water twice the size of the continental United States, roughly 80% plastic. Adding to this atrocity, according to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year when they mistake this plastic litter for food and choke to death trying to eat it or become entangled in the mess and strangle to death. The conservation group estimates that 50 percent of all marine litter is some form of plastic.
Plastic bags are barely being recycled in America at a rate of only 1% to 3%. Americans throw away an estimated 100 billion plastic bags every year. Plastic bags are not, repeat, are not biodegradable and it is estimated that just one plastic bag can take anywhere from 400 to 1,000 years to naturally break down on it’s own. These bags will outlive us all and in the meantime while the environment is waiting on them to decompose “tiny toxic bits seep into the soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans,” said Vincent Cobb, an entrepreneur, who launched the website Reuseit.com. The toxic materials seeping into these water sources only adds to the water contamination issues and clean, drinkable water scarcity plaguing the globe today.
As if the plastic bag hasn’t done enough, approximately 60-100 million barrels of crude oil are needed to make a world supply of plastic bags each year. Plastic bags are made from petroleum, a non-renewable, natural resource. The manufacturing process alone contributes to harmful carbon emissions and pollutions being released into the air during the petroleum extraction process. Additionally, most plastic bags are made of high density polyethylene or HDPE, which is extremely hazardous to manufacture and most recycle centers refuse these types of bags due to their durability, which regularly gets caught in the recycle machines, causing costly repairs. Additionally, a recent study found that the inks used on plastic bags contain lead, a known and very dangerous toxin.
A few states, such as, California along with Walmarts nationwide have attempted to tackle the plastic bag debacle head on, by requiring large grocery stores and pharmacies that typically use the polyethylene bag with the two handles, to take the bags back in an recycling effort to remedy this problem. However, these attempts have been unsuccessful, because it requires people to actually bring their plastic bags back to the store once they are done transporting their items home…not likely with the hustle and bustle that makes up the American way of life.
On the flip side of this issue, these bags are widely used in grocers and other retailers because they are cheap, costing no more than 2 cents per bag, while paper bags run a high 4 to 6 cents and compostable bags 9 to 14 cents. Recycling the plastic bag and trying to make a new plastic bag would actually cost more in the entire process than the bag is actually worth. According to an article taken from Salon.com, Carol Misseldine, sustainability coordinator for the city of Oakland said “we are not recycling plastic bags into plastic bags. They’re being downcycled, meaning that they’re being put into another product that itself can never be recycled.”
In March 2007, San Francisco was touted as the first and only major U.S. city to enforce a ban on plastic bags. Large retailers, supermarkets and pharmacies in the city were forced to ditch plastic shopping bags and replace them with paper bags or those made from all-natural biodegradable cornstarch-based plastic. The result has been huge, with a whopping 50 percent drop in plastic bag litter on the streets since the ban took effect. Stores like Ikea and Whole Foods are also doing their part. In 2008, Whole Foods banned plastic bags from all 270 of their U.S., Canada and UK stores now only offering paper, reusable or canvas. Ikea now imposes a 5 cent fee to consumers that choose to bag their items in plastic. This program started with their UK stores in 2006 and by 2007 when it was rolled out to the U.S. locations, the company already marked a 95% decrease in plastic bag usage in the UK.
While reusable and canvas bags are definitely the eco-friendly way to shop, what would be even better for the environment is to take this issue a few steps further and ban the use of plastic bags in the United States altogether. You can leave your green footprint so to speak in making sure that our environment is rid of the plastic bag once and for all by signing this petition today.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/21218849@N03/3183610309/