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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/19/09

Plastic Bags: A Primer and a Guide

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Message April Moore

Foregoing plastic bags at the grocery and other stores is not a new idea. By now we've all learned that plastic is made from petroleum, a finite resource, and that the ubiquitous bags make their way into our waterways and the digestive systems of manyanimals.

But the extent of plastic bags' impactis shocking.I invite you to read the following 10 facts about plastic bags and to continue on to the "What You Can Do' section at the end. There's more you can do than you might think.

A few facts:

  1. Well over a billion single-use plastic bags are given out every day. Americans throw away about 100 billion of these bags per year, the equivalent of about 12 million barrels of oil.
  2. The production of plastic bags requires petroleum and sometimes natural gas. Both are finite resources. Prospecting and drilling for these resources contributes to the destruction of fragile habitats and ecosystems around the world.
  3. The manufacture of plastic bags adds many tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere every year.
  4. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food. Turtles think the bags are jellyfish, their primary food source. Once swallowed, plastic bags choke animals or block their intestines, leading to an agonizing death.
  5. On land, many cows, goats, and other animals also suffer and die from accidentally ingesting plastic bagswhile foraging for food.
  6. All the plastic bags that have ever been made still exist. They never "biodegrade.' Instead, they'photodegrade,' breaking into smaller and smaller pieces. In the oceans, the plastic breaks down into such small pieces "that they can be consumed by the smallest marine life at the base of the food web,"according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme.
  7. Only about 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled around the world. In the U.S., we recycle 2 percent of them.
  8. While many plastic bags will likely spend thousands of years in landfills, the bags are so aerodynamic that many, even if disposed of properly, blow away,clogging storm drains and washing into rivers and bays, eventually finding their way into oceans.
  9. Bits of plastic bags have been found in the nests of albatrosses in the remote Midway Islands of the Pacific Ocean.
  10. In the Pacific Ocean, about 800 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands, is a swirling mass of trash, much of it made of plastic bags. This oceandump is about twice the size of Texas. "It's an endless stream of incessant plastic particles everywhere you look," says Dr. Marcus Eriksen of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which studies plastics in the marine environment. "Fifty or 60 years ago there was no plastic out there."

Fortunately, some governments are taking action to stem the tide of this terrible legacy we are leaving the planet and its creatures. Ireland, South Africa, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Taiwan, not the countries one usually thinks of as environmental leaders, have banned plastic bags. InBangladesh, at least, plastic bags posed aserious and possibly immediatedanger to humans. Bags hadchoked drainage systemsin this flood-prone country, and so were banned in 2002.

In the U.S. some cities are taking action. San Francisco and Oakland haveoutlawed the use of plastic bags in large grocery stores and pharmacies.In Seattle,voters are deciding today [voters rejected the 20 cent fee, 58-42%] whether to uphold a decision last year by the mayor and city council to charge shoppers 20 cents for every plastic or paper bag they use in stores. If thedecision is upheld, shoppers can simply avoid the feebyusing their own bagswhen they shop.

The United Nations Environment Programme is calling for a worldwide ban on plastic bags. A great idea, I think. When Isearched the Web, however, for organizations working for such a ban, I found nothing.If EarthConnection readers know of any such organizations, I would appreciate knowing about them, so I can publicize them here.

In the meantime, there are many things you can do to help,when shopping, at home, and at work. These suggestions come from Bay Nature, a San Francisco area organization.""April Moore

What You Can Do When Shopping

Bring your own:

  • durable reusable bags, baskets, and containers for shopping at all stores
  • reusable lightweight cloth bags for produce
  • mug or cup for take-out coffee, tea, smoothies, etc.
  • reusable storage containers from home for restaurant meal leftovers
  • food from home in place of buying takeout

Avoid plastic packaging.

Avoid buying bottled water; the caps are not recyclable and their size and shape increase the likelihood they will end up in the ocean.

Buy products with minimal or truly recyclable packaging:

  • beverages and foods in glass containers with metal lids (and reuse the glass containers)
  • berries in paper pulp baskets
  • meat from the butcher counter and cheese from the deli counter""and ask that they be wrapped in butcher paper or waxed paper
  • cream cheese packaged in foil rather than plastic tubs
  • margarine in paper-wrapped cubes rather than plastic tubs
  • powdered laundry detergent in paper boxes rather than liquid in plastic bottles (but watch out for plastic bags inside the boxes)
  • toilet paper packaged in paper
  • bar soap instead of liquid soap in plastic bottles
  • wine in glass bottles with natural cork rather than plastic stoppers
  • pet food and cat litter in paper bags or boxes
  • nursery plants in pressed paper rather than plastic pots

Buy in bulk:

  • Buy foods like grains, seeds, nuts, beans, flour, pasta, cereal, crackers, cookies, tea, coffee, olives, etc., in bulk, and bring them home in your own containers or durable reusable bags.
  • Buy personal care products like shampoo and body lotion in bulk by refilling your own containers (some stores with large bulk sections carry personal care products in bulk).
  • Avoid buying individually wrapped or single-serving foods like cheese slices, pudding, juice in boxes, etc.

If you can"t buy in bulk, buy items in larger quantities to reduce packaging.

Avoid buying disposable plastic products like razors, pens, lighters, diapers, etc.

Buy used items when possible.

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April Moore is the creator and editor of, a site for people who love the earth. The site offers nourishment and inspiration, to strengthen us for the hard work we face in saving our planet. A lifelong (more...)
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