Sunday, July 31, 2011

"The world consumes 1 million plastic shopping bags every minute"....

Plastic bags
...that is a lot of plastic.  1.44 billion plastic bags a day, 525 billion plastic bags a year. You get the idea.  A few recent articles/blogs have highlighted the copious quantity of plastic bags used/consumed worldwide, and in the U.S. in particular, and the numbers are certainly astounding. American consumers use approximately 102 billion plastic shopping bags a year. 

Plastic waste causes a variety of harms, of course, killing wildlifelittering our nations landscapes and waterways, clogging sewers, containing harmful chemicals that disrupt endocrine regulators related to sexual function, and even consuming precious non-renewable resources that could be put to a variety of other uses.  On this latter point, in one year's time China reduced its plastic bag use by two-thirds, which saves the equivalent of 11.7 million barrels of oil.  Though this is only a little more than half of the number of barrels of oil consumed in the U.S. on a daily basis, it is hardly the highest and best use of a non-renewable resource (even when considering plastic vs. plastic trade-offs, as this amount of oil could be used to manufacture a great quantity of plastic-based hospital implements, for example, that are in short supply in the developing world). Plastic bags are also notoriously difficult to recycle, with only 9% being recycled.

The articles/blogs highlighted above take particular issue with efforts of the plastic industry to block plastic bag bans in the U.S., despite the fact that a number of countries worldwide have instituted strong anti-plastic bag policies and the United Nations Environment Programme recently declared that "[t]here is simply zero justification for Wearers of plastic bags manufacturing them anymore, anywhere." These industries have used primarily scare tactics about the supposed dangers of alternative reusable or paper bags and even lawsuits aimed at preventing anti-plastic bag policies.

Even so, a variety of U.S. communities have taken aim at plastic bags. San Francisco was the first American city to ban them, and Washington, D.C. has imposed a five-cent fee per bag, resulting in a drop from 22.5 million bags per month to 3 million per month. Just this month the city of Portland banned them completely (with a few caveats). For some interesting insights supporting these bans from a plastic-bag-ban skeptic, see here.

I first became interested in the problems created by plastic consumption/disposal after Plastic Polymers watching "Toxic Garbage Island," a documentary about the Pacific Ocean gyre containing an amount of plastic and other trash equal to the size of Texas (not an actual island, but rather a diffused accumulation of plastic broken down into constituent parts).  As the documentary describes, it's not a plastic bag that you always find in the gyre, but rather every piece of a plastic bag broken down into its fundamental polymers - fundamentally altering the chemical make-up of the world's oceans (already being altered by a variety of other drivers). 

Of course, the part of the documentary that impacted me the most was the statement (paraphrasing) "When you go to Subway, how long do you use the plastic bag? Five seconds? Five minutes?" So just keep "one million plastic bags a minute" in your mind the next time you are choosing your method of carrying your sandwich out of the shop.  The paper its already wrapped in works very nicely, leaving you only to worry about all the preservatives in your sandwich (we just can't win them all I suppose).

- Blake Hudson

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