Plastic is big business. According to the Canadian government, the Canadian plastics industry accounts for an estimated $46.9 billion in shipments of plastic products. Worldwide, in 2002 factories churned out a whopping 5 trillion plastic bags ranging from large trash bags to the light give-away model we all use.
Plastic associations globally are scrambling, trying hard to convince consumers they will lose a helpful lifestyle aid if we stop using plastic bags. But their arguments ring hollow. The consequences on our planet, our wildlife and ourselves far outweighs the convenience.
While the implications of plastic infiltrating our world are only beginning to be understood, effects are already being felt in the economy, the environment and in our bodies. Production of plastic bags requires petroleum and often natural gas - both non-renewable resources. Californians Against Waste reports the US uses 4.3 million tons of plastic bags and wrappers per year amounting to the equivalent of 48 million barrels of oil.
Plastic manufacturers argue that recycling should be the focus. Recycling is important. But it falls far short of solving the issues surrounding plastic bags. Recycling rates for plastic bags are extremely low. One to three percent of plastic bags are recycled. Many of the bags collected for recycling get shipped to third world countries like India and China where they are cheaply incinerated under more lax environmental laws producing the Darth Vader of toxic chemicals - dioxins.
Bioplastics came out a little over 15 years ago. However, biodegradable bags are only useful in specialty applications, such as garbage bags for yard waste and green bins. Evidence shows they will most likely not decompose in the landfill, because appropriate conditions don't exist. (Currently nothing completely degrades in our modern-day landfills because of the lack of water, light, oxygen and other important elements - all necessary for the degradation process to be completed. But that's a whole other problem.) Moreover, if the bags do decompose in a landfill without good air supply, they create methane, a very potent greenhouse gas. And then let's not forget the concerns that mixing biodegradable bags into the recycling stream for regular plastic bags can render entire batches useless - opps - there goes recycling.
The Power of One
As consumers, we must acknowledge the role we play when we accept a free plastic bag every time and everywhere we shop. And while plastic shopping bags may be a small part of a bigger problem, by refusing to use plastic bags we can all do something to help change the tide of events that we are currently experiencing.
Simple Things You Can Do:
Make the commitment to change lifestyle habits which will lessen the dependency on the convenience of a plastic shopping bag. And turning to paper bags is not the answer. It takes four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic one. Fourteen million trees are cut to produce 10 billion paper grocery bags. The impact on our forests and Global Warming are too grave to continue this conspicuous consumption.
Think twice about taking a plastic bag if your purchase is small and easy to carry and tell the store clerk why.
Try to go at least one week without accumulating any new plastic bags. If every shopper took just one less bag each month, it could eliminate the waste of hundreds of millions of bags each year. (By using reuseable bags a population of 100,000 people can save up to 14,000 barrels of oil per year.)
Keep canvas bags in your home, office, and car so you always have them available when shopping.
Ask your favorite store to stop providing bags for free, or to offer a discount for not using bags.
Find out if your favorite store has a plastic bag recycling program. If not ask why.
Insist that all your family use reusable bags when shopping.
And this from our friends Skyla and Oz. When going for takeout, bring your own containers and don't forget to ask the server not to put plastic forks with the order.
Most importantly tell your politicians to stop being beholden to the plastic industry. Tell them you want action not rhetoric.