Banning the Bag

Plastic bags are durable, long lasting, and make life easier for grocery-toting shoppers; but their longevity may be an environmental curse.

The Pacific Ocean is home to a beautiful array of sea mammals, more species of salmon than any other ocean in the world, and an unusual island that’s larger than the state of Texas. Rather than sand and palm trees, this island is composed of plastics, chemical sludge, and other common litter components. In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic bags are a big culprit.

To protect the environment from further contamination by plastics, State Senators Mark Hass (D-OR) and Jason Atkinson (R-OR) co-sponsored a bill to ban plastic bags in Oregon. Though the bill failed to pass in the last session, Hass and Portland Mayor Sam Adams would like to see it succeed in 2011. With the support of organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation and Environment Oregon, the bill stands a chance of passing in February.

Plastic bags start off innocently enough.

They begin as polyethylene pellets derived from petroleum oil, which are heated and pounded until they become liquid. At this point, the liquid is poured into bag molds. Once the plastic has hardened, the bags are imprinted with store logos and distributed to retailers around the world. While the dependence on oil for plastic bag production is concerning to many environmentalists, the biggest problem isn’t where these bags start; it’s where they end up.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), most of the debris found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—only one of many garbage islands—is small enough that the particles are not visible to the naked eye.

Birds and other creatures that normally feed off the algae and insects that float in the ocean often confuse the tiny plastic pieces with food. As a result, birds will eat and eat until their stomachs are filled with plastic; but in the end they will die of starvation, as there is no nutritional value in plastic.

Some environmentalists see banning the plastic bag as the first step on the road to ditching all plastics. Tualatin Riverkeepers Advocacy and Communications Manager Brian Wegener says a plastic bag ban would not only decrease the problems associated with plastics, but it would also bring attention to the entire spectrum of plastics that currently serve personal uses.

“That consciousness can go a long way in eliminating other plastics from the environment,” Wegener says.

The ban would reduce the environmental impact of plastics, especially in waterways. For example, wildlife often becomes entangled in the plastics that enter rivers and streams. It’s also common for these animals to try to eat the plastics and  this can cause them to choke to death.

Some people also fear the effects of plastics will continue to have a negative impact on Earth’s biological habitats because plastic bags might take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how long these bags will be around because not a single bag has yet to decompose; they’ve only been in production for about fifty years. Plastics cannot biodegrade because microorganisms will not eat them.  However, plastics can be broken down in other manners.

In the ocean, plastic bags break up into smaller and smaller pieces through a process called photodegradation. The process is similar to biodegradation, except the plastic is weakened and broken up by the sun rather than microscopic organisms.

“They become part of the food chain as micro-pieces,” Wegener says. Fish can ingest the little plastic particles. “The full impact of that is not fully understood yet, but it’s probably not healthy.”

The plastics industry has a different take on the issue. Plastic proponents argue that eliminating plastic bags from shopping centers would only increase the demand for paper bags, which could have a harmful environmental effect.

According to the Progressive Bag Alliance, producing plastic bags uses 40 percent less energy than producing paper bags. The alliance also says that paper bags generate fifty times more water pollutants than plastic bags.

Still, the harmful effects of plastics on wildlife, and the ecosystem as a whole, are not seen with paper bags.

Once plastic bags begin to break down, they release a throng of toxins into the surrounding environment, such as mercury, lead and cadmium, according to Ecology Center. Plastics also contain diethylhexyl phthalate, which is a known carcinogen.

In spite of the harmful effects that plastic bags can have on the environment, the plastics industry argues that a ban would cause more harm than good by increasing costs for consumers.

Tim Shestek, the director of the west coast region’s American Chemistry Council, says banning bags could have a negative impact on the already suffering economy.

“Banning plastic bags and charging consumers for paper bags will raise grocery costs for families that are struggling in a tough economy,” Shestek says. A ban would also hurt the plastic bag manufacturers, which could have a negative impact on jobs, he says.

It is estimated that five hundred billion to one trillion plastic bags are produced each year. The U.S. is responsible for consuming one-fifth of these.

Everyone agrees that plastics shouldn’t be calling our oceans home. Rather than focusing on a ban, Shestek suggests Oregonians should divert their attention to improving accessibility to plastic recycling programs. The rate of recycling plastic bags has increased by 28 percent since 2005 according to Shestek.

Reusable cloth shopping totes and biodegradable shopping bags are other environmentally sound ideas that would decrease Americans’ reliance on harmful plastics and paper products alike.

According to the Sierra Club, the best shopping bags for the environment are sturdy cloth bags made of organic, sustainable plant fibers. These can be used thousands of times before wearing out.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to America’s growing need for shopping bags. While a plastic bag ban would merely address the surface problems created by plastics and other litter items, it would also introduce a new set of problems, such as an increased dependence on paper products.

One thing rings true: for as long as Americans continue to fill landfills, line beaches, and clutter oceans with plastic bags instead of pursuing more environmentally-friendly practices, such as recycling and bringing their own shopping bags, the legacy of the plastic bag will remain a long-term mystery. With further research and consumer dedication, maybe Americans will realize the future condition of our landfills and oceans will depend on the choices we make.

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