We give little thought to grabbing our groceries in the recycled plastic bags or putting our sandwiches and leftovers into baggies. There is no doubt that we have been provided with many valuable medical and industrial products from the research and manufacturing of the petrochemical industry. Most of us, however, give little thought to the possible dangerous effects of petrochemicals.
For instance did you know that petrochemicals can be found in many food products, health and beauty products, water, household cleaning products, and even children’s toys? (1)
Of the more than 75,000 chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, only a fraction have gone through complete testing to evaluate whether they might cause problems for human health. (2) There are more chemicals in use today than we can categorize. We have no idea of the effects on humans or wildlife as only a few of these chemicals have gone through any complete testing cycles.
Harmful Side Effects
Harmful side effects of “use and misuse over time” of plastic bags and petrochemicals include:
- serious health problems including cancers, endocrine disruption, birth defects, liver and brain damage
- poisoning and death of wildlife; thinking it was a food source, animals have died from ingesting large amounts of plastic
- release of toxic chemical compounds as plastics photo-degrade into the soil and water
- littering and clogging of our eco-systems: community waterways, roadways and beaches (due to their light weight, plastic bags are easily carried away by winds to become entangled in trees, fences, poles, rain gutters, etc.)
Plastic bags, made from petrochemicals, pose a menace to humans and wildlife alike. The substance, polyethylene (a thermoplastic made from oil), that is used for plastic bag manufacturing is virtually indestructible and never completely degrades like paper products do. However, plastic bags do “photo degrade” (break down into smaller more toxic polymers) releasing their toxins and poisoning the soil, water and eco-system.
Dr. Anthony Andrady, a research scientist and author of Plastics in the Environment, said, “Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last fifty years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”(4)
The State of California spends $25 million every year to manage plastic bag pollution, and cities in Southern California cities spent in excess of $1.7 billion for trashed and impaired waterways. City of San Francisco officials estimate that they spend $8.5 million each year to try to get a handle on litter from plastic bags. (3) Director of San Francisco’s Department of Environment, Jared Blumenfeld, said, “There’s harsh economics behind recycling: It costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32.”(5) Clearly, recycle plastic bags is not a viable answer.
While less than 1% of bags are recycled (Christian Science Monitor Newspaper (5)), data released by the United States Environmental Protection Agency shows that somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed world-wide each year (National Geographic News, September 2, 2003 (5)).
According to U.S. National Academy of Sciences, landfills were not filled to capacity or overflowing because ocean-going vessels dumped 8 million pounds of plastic annually into our seas and waterways. (6)
A world-wide ban has been called as cities, states, and countries have been asked to discontinue the manufacture and usage of plastic bags due to the severe impact to the environment and eco-systems. Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environmental Program, recently said “there is simply zero justification for manufacturing [plastic bags] any more, anywhere.” (3)
Plastic Bags Banned Across the World
Countries, states and cities that have banned the use of plastic bags or strongly reduced usage include:
- Bangladesh, and Rwanda have banned plastic bags; China has banned free plastic bags. China will save 37 millions barrels of oil each year due to their ban of free plastic bags (CNN.com/asia, January 9, 2008) (5)
- Ireland took the lead in Europe, taxing plastic bags in 2002, since have reduced their consumption of plastic bags by 90% (5)
- Israel, Canada, western India, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Taiwan, and Singapore have also banned or are moving toward banning of plastic bags – Planetsave.com February 16, 2008 (5)
- San Francisco becomes the first U.S. City to ban plastic bags – March 27, 2007 – NPR.org (5)
- Oakland and Boston are considering a ban, The Boston Globe – May 20, 2007 (5)
I am just a single person, what can I do about it?
Did you know that if you used one cloth bag a week you could save an average of six bags a week, 24 bags a month, 288 bags a year and approximately 22,176 bags over the course of your lifetime? (5)
- Carry your own reusable cloth bags when you go shopping. Consider purchasing the set of 5 cloth bags for yourself and family members.
- Use recycled paper bags.
- Encourage local stores to sell reusable shopping bags, and/or to charge customers a small fee for the plastic bags as an incentive for customers to become “green conscious.” The money collected by the small surcharge can be donated to a green charity of choice.
- Write letters to businesses when you notice excessive use of packaging materials asking them to adopt more eco-friendly policies.
- Write to your local politician as well as your federal representatives asking them to put forward robust eco-friendly legislation designed to eliminate or severely reduce the dependence and usage of plastic bags.
- Shop at your local Farmer’s Market. Support local businesses who provide fresh, organically grown produce.
- Take part in Green America’s Plastic Free campaign by making your own laundry soap, purchasing items such as lip balm in plastic free, biodegradeable containers, returning plastic containers to businesses for recycling, repurposing and reuse, using plain old baking soda and water for brushing your teeth, etc.
- Talk to your friends and neighbors – you may want to use compelling photos of wildlife or clogged waterway channels, etc. to bring up their awareness level.
- As much as is practical, stop purchasing items made from plastic – you’ll be long dead, but that plastic food storage container will still be very much intact!
As a side note, if we were simply to reduce our consumption of plastic bags, we would have less dependency on foreign oil – maybe then we wouldn’t have to offer up our first child so we could fill up our gas tanks!
Paper degrades, but polymers are forever.