Let’s Talk Trash

The problem with plastic bags
By Amy Ney
Let’s Talk Trash

Plastic bags were first introduced in grocery stores in the 1970s. Customers were given a choice between paper or plastic bags. Now, 90 percent of the shopping bags used throughout the world are plastic.

Plastic bags made from polyethylene are derived from oil and natural gas, non-renewable resources. Processing requires additional natural resources such as oil, gas and coal, and emits harmful gases into the air. The estimated number of plastic shopping bags consumed annually throughout the world ranges from 100 billion to a trillion. Some of these bags (5 percent or less) are returned for recycling — but turning old plastic bags into a usable raw material is very expensive. Other bags are thrown away, where they emit toxic fumes if incinerated. Some bags are dumped or find their way through storm drains and streams into the ocean. Here, they choke and entangle wildlife, killing hundreds of thousands of mammals, fish and birds each year. Bags decompose into smaller pieces of plastic that contaminate soil, waterways, and eventually enter our food chain and our stomachs.

Throughout the world, countries are beginning to take notice and are banning or taxing plastic bags. China, Ireland, Rwanda and Bangladesh have all imposed plastic bag sanctions. And several U.S. cities and towns from coastal North Carolina to Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are following suit. Whether an outright ban or a tax, the goal is the same: reduce the effects of plastic bags on our environment.

Plastic bag recycling has increased in some areas, thanks in part to statewide education programs about the benefits and ease of returning plastic bags to a recycle bin rather than throwing them away. The "A Bags Life" campaign focuses on reducing the number of bags used, reusing them for other purposes such as picking up pet waste, and recycling them at local retail locations. Although recycled bags can be reincarnated as benches, decking, fencing and even new plastic bags, most are discarded.

So, instead of plastic bags, should we return to using paper? Although paper bags are recycled at a higher rate

(20 percent) than plastic and are made from trees, a renewable resource, they require more energy to produce and recycle, and they generate more emissions into our air and water. They also cost more to produce and take up more space in the landfill — neither paper nor plastic biodegrade in a garbage dump because of the dry, stable conditions.

A better solution to the paper versus plastic bag dilemma is probably to choose reusable bags. Using non-disposable bags saves an average of six bags per person per week. Over a lifetime, this could total 22,000 bags. If only 20 percent of Americans use cloth bags throughout their lifespan, we could prevent over a trillion shopping bags from entering our waste stream, our oceans and our food chain. These bags may be found at many retail locations as well as numerous online sites, can be crafted from materials from cloth to recycled plastic, and are available in a wide variety of sizes and styles. Although reusable bags may initially require more resources to create, using them for a long period of time can outweigh the disadvantages. Carrying your bags in your car makes them easily accessible when you arrive at the store. Or, if you are only purchasing a few items, you might carry them, or you may consolidate purchases from several stores into a single bag. Any plastic bags that you do use should be returned to a bag recycling bin, available at most grocery stores.

About the Author

Amy Ney is a freelance writer with a background in private land management. She lives in Haywood County and is a member of Haywood EMC. Related land management information can be found at www.woodlandstewardseries.org.

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