By Neva Knott
All photographs courtesy of wiki commons.
As we roll into year two here at The Ecotone Exchange, I’m taking on the essential challenge of bioregionalism–knowing where I live. True, I was born in Olympia, Washington, but moved to Oregon when I was 18, so most of my adult life and knowledge of place centers on Portland and Oregon in general. It’s time I get to know “back home” in the ecological and environmental sense. Earlier this week I wrote about the current situation with our Huckleberry wolf pack, and in June I wrote about some of what’s going on along the Washington coastline through the work of Surfrider Foundation.
Today, I’m going to write about the new bag ban in my county. I live in Olympia, Washington (the state), which is in Thurston County.
As of July 1, 2014, single-use plastic bags will not be used at retail checkout counters. Produce bags are still allowed, but that final purchase bag will no longer be plastic. Instead, shoppers can bring a reusable bag, or purchase a paper bag for five cents.
The impetus for this ban is to keep more bags out of the waste stream, primarily, out of the waters of Puget Sound and the ocean. Puget Sound is an astounding place, and living on the Sound carries a very water-aware mindset. Secondarily, the ban is designed to address the human health risks of plastics.
Statistics from a variety of sources show that each person uses 350-500 of this type of single use plastic bags per year. Even though some consumers recycle them, many municipal recycling programs don’t accept them. Some consumers “reuse” the bags, but the thinness of them does not allow for sustainable use. The most cited reuse in Thurston County’s survey of residents was to “pick up dog poo.” I do my fair share of dog-poo duty with bags from Safeway, Target, and the like. Even so, I don’t think it’s a strong argument for the bag’s reusability.
The webpage for the Thurston County bag ban cites Bag It The Movie: Is Your Life Too Plastic, a short film that explains plastics in the context of human consumption.
Most plastic bags that are recycled–Thurston County’s survey shows a 43 percent recycle rate–are made into composite lumber. The rest is used for a variety of consumer goods.
Because these bags aren’t made of biodegradable material, they don’t break down in the landfill. In fact, in previous research, I’ve learned that plastics take up to 400 years to break down–and then they only break down into smaller pieces. As far as humans know, plastic bags never break down to elements that can be absorbed back into the biota and recycled through the ecosystem.
This inability of the plastic bag to break down is the big problem in oceans everywhere. Eventually, the whole bag disintegrated into pieces. When the pieces disintegrate into small pieces, many species of marine life think the small pieces of plastic are food. For example, whales eat krill, a very small organism easily confused with bag bits.
A swarm of krill.
Once the plastic is ingested, it causes problems for the marine animal, and is passed on into the human food that comes from the ocean–the fish we eat contains traces of plastic. In a sense, the plastics have come full circle–but in a very harmful and unhealthy way.
Plastic bags are made from petroleum and natural gas by-products. While the plastics manufacturing industry explains that oil and natural gas are not mined just for plastic, it’s clear in following the fossil fuel and hydro-fracking debates that too much extraction of oil and gas is being done, period. By-products add to the argument that extraction is necessary because of the range of products it provides.
Sustainability evaluates raw materials sourcing, energy use in production, production waste, energy use in transportation, waste in production (chemical off-puts into the atmosphere or water, for example), and waste from use. Think of plastic bags in these terms, and you’ll begin to understand the rationale behind the bag ban here in Thurston County, and elsewhere.
In the end, these bags are bad, bad, bad. They are made from dirty chemical stuff, clog landfills, and kill marine life, and their manufacture contributes to global warming. Paper bags might not be much better, environmentally speaking–because it’s not the best thing ever to log trees to make bags, even though the bags will biodegrade.
In the end, the best choice is for people to make the effort to take a bag to the store. Europeans do it, and have forever. Why can’t Americans be less lazy about these things?
I’d rather take the extra minute to grab a bag than live on a planet with fewer forests, poisoned water, sick whales, dolphins and turtles, and global warming–wouldn’t you?
Check out Surfrider Foundation’s “Rise Above Plastics” campaign to learn more.