by Yael Gruer
Plastic bags. What are they good for? Although many grocery store shoppers have viewed them as a convenient way to bag and carry groceries, plastic bags have many negative attributes. Not only do they litter the landscape, the bags can also contribute to the pollution of waterways and even contribute to the decline in seabirds and marine animals, which can get caught in the bags. Plastic bags are not exactly decomposable, either. In fact, a single bag can take as long as a thousand years to decompose.
The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2004 report estimated that 4-5 trillion plastic bags, made from petroleum-based products derived from fossil fuels, were produced in the world in 2002, 80% of which were used in North America and Western Europe. The Institute further estimated that about 100 billion plastic trash bags were thrown away by Americans, leading to crowded landfills, clogged drains and a big ecological footprint on the land.
The North American territory of American Samoa recently passed a law forbidding stores from using disposable plastic shopping bags. Biodegradable, non-petroleum based plastic bags and compostable plastic bags are permitted. The ban, which takes effect on February 23rd, was signed into law in early January by Gov. Togioloa Tulafono, who wrote in a letter to the territorial Legislature that the bill “is a step in the right direction toward protecting the natural beauty of our islands and our native land and sea creatures.”
The American Samoa joins Bangladesh, which banned plastic bags in 2002, and China, which banned them in 2008. Interestingly enough, California recently rejected a similar bill that sought to ban plastic shopping bags. Similar attempts to either ban plastic bags or mandate fees for their use have been rejected in various U.S. cities including Seattle, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.
Those opposed to bans or fees often cite that states should not interfere with personal choice. However, the bags have a long-term environmental affect on future generations. Continuing to use them interferes with the personal choice of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who may wish to live in an environmentally friendly society devoid of pollution caused by previous generations.
You would think that saving millions of TONS of oil like China did by banning plastic bags would lead to others following the same path. Apparently not, because Baltimore recently backed out on a bag fee and a week-old bag ban in Philiadelphia was killed, because of pressure from oil lobbyists and retail stores. China reduced bag usage by 66% and saved 1.6 million tons of oil.
Although many have protested regulation of plastic bags in the U.S., various stores and cities have their own regulations. In California, cities such as San Francisco and Oakland have plastic bag bans in place. San Francisco began the practice first as far back as 2007, and Oakland followed suit. So did cities outside of California, including Malibu and parts of North Carolina. Washington, D.C. recently implemented a five-cent charge on both plastic bags and disposable paper bags.
Grocery store Whole Foods has put their money where their mouth is by trying to elicit change in a slightly different way. In addition to discontinuing their own use of plastic bags, the grocer also gives shoppers a nickel back for each bag they bring in. States including California, New York, and Delaware require stores distributing plastic bags to provide recycling bins.
Other stores have worked hard to provide plastic bag recycling on their own accord. Various grocery chains, such as Publix, offer in-store recycling of both plastic and paper bags.
What to do with the bags we have? Don’t throw them away. Most of the grocery stores have recycle bag receptacles in their stores. Ask the info desk if you can’t find them but Festival Foods and Gordy’s on Hamilton in Eau Claire both have receptacles where you can drop off unwanted plastic bags. Also, it says right on the Kohl’s bag to return it to the store for recycling. Your options are limitless. Recycle and be Greener this Earth Day!
Biodegradable bags may seem like a good solution, but they too have their downsides. Some are derived from resins containing polyethylene and heavy metals including lead and beryllium. Others are fully compostable, but still require a great deal of natural resources to produce and take at least 18 months to break down while consuming oxygen and hurting marine life (since oxygen contributes to algae blooms, necessary for marine animals). Even biodegradable bags sometimes have chemical residues, which can contaminate water, soil and crops.
Paper bags may seem like a great alternative, but they too come with their own set of problems. First of all, they come from trees—millions of trees that are cut down to produce them. The production of paper bags leads to pollution, since they are made by heating wood chips at high temperatures in a toxic chemical solution. The runoff sometimes ends up in waterways, generating toxicity and working its way through the food chain. And when the paper bags decompose, they not only take up as much space, but also can take just as long as plastic bags in a landfill without access to light, water, oxygen, and other elements that help the paper bag along in the process.
Although there are no regulations mandating the use of reusable cloth or mesh bags, they do seem like the greenest alternative.
Yael Grauer is a freelance writer covering the environment, health, and nutrition. Visit http://yaelwrites.com/ to learn more.