Yet Another Inconvenient Truth

Gerald Ansell

Here in our beautiful and supportive Southwest region of the USA, plastic bags appear to be of a somewhat unimportant and relatively background importance in our busy lives. Most of us take for granted that practically every time we go shopping at our friendly nationwide department store, its checkout will provide us with a nice, convenient “free” plastic bag or two, or three or more that enables us to carry our purchases to the car. Most of us probably use the bag once more to bag-up trash under the kitchen sink or maybe as a doggie waste bag. Less than 2% of us take it back to the store for “recycling” or (heaven forbid) a “second usage.” An unknown percentage of us are vaguely aware that when the wind blows, a lot of these bags somehow decorate our highways and byways by wrapping themselves around bushes and fences. Oh well, who cares?! Just another of life’s endless trivia… It certainly has NOTHING TO DO WITH ECO-MASS DESTRUCTION. Oh! And by the way, what is that?

Think again! Since our emergence on Earth, mankind has almost certainly proved to be its most creative, versatile, optimistic, self-perpetuating, intelligent, self-indulgent, and in many respects appreciative species and guest. For reasons to still be understood however, we have also conducted a never-ending, but as yet officially non-declared WAR on both ourselves and our host, the Earth’s eco-structure. For thousands of years each of our now non-existent civilizations, and even our current one, has creatively developed an impressive array of self-destructive weapon systems to annihilate each other, ranging from spears, swords, clubs, gunpowder, nerve gases, germs, chariots, tanks, battleships, warplanes, etc etc; plus associated manufacturing capabilities. To crown it all we have a variety of incredible nuclear devices capable of destroying thousands of humans, whole cities and the nearby ecology ALL-IN-ONE-GO. Usually its ensuing wars were declared between constituent groups such as tribes, countries, empires, religions, states, etc. For those of us who enjoy the History Channel, much of its information propagates the reasons why the wars or conflicts got started, who won, who lost, who performed well, and who the villains or heroes were.

Mankind’s UNDECLARED war upon its planet’s fragile ecosystem has taken place for many of reasons above: i.e. ego, political and economic power, food and minerals supply, more control, the sheer intellectual ignorance and arrogance of the majority of its populations, laziness, short-term profitability etc., etc. This undeclared war is again accompanied and accomplished by the sheer ingenuity, energy and creativeness, and often inherent goodness of the same mankind who wages it. During the past millenniums, mankind’s usually unintended eco-destructive activities have developed an impressive array of “weapons” such as energy and materials dependent upon non-sustainable sources, as exemplified by their addiction to oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear suppliers and mining interests. During the past 2-3 centuries of the Industrial Revolution these have rapidly become almost indispensible to mankind’s current way of life here on planet Earth. They have resulted in monolithic global industrial organizations which now dictate every government’s financial, manufacturing, educational, import/export policies and their growingly captive populations’/consumers’ social needs, wants and minds.

So! Just where do our precious, convenient and seemingly innocuous PLASTIC BAGS fit into the disturbing set of utterances above? In terms of HARD REALITY, their current disposal results in a yearly killing, by choking, ingestion or getting caught-up, of up to 2 million birds, at least 100,000 marine creatures such as fish, turtles, plankton, and their habitats in and on our planet’s oceans and land. As things stand now as mankind’s population and therefore plastic bag usage increases, the killings and destruction will probably increase accordingly. Plastic bags obviously share end results comparable with regular weapons of mass destruction.

Plastic bags, wrappings and other food and beverage containers as we know them today, made their debut with Rock-and-Roll and the Beatles during the late 1950s and ‘60s. The plastic bags were considered at the time to be highly convenient and worthwhile because they are essentially impervious to the the passage of water and moisture, insoluble in water, light, easily manufactured to be either transparent or colored, and easily and attractively labeled with an array of readily available printing products. In those early days some were even made from bio-derived and degradable materials. Within the next 10-20 years or so, however, it emerged that the most convenient and apparently cheapest way to manufacture plastic bags and a variety of other related packaging and containment products was with essentially polyethylene PE, which is derived mainly from oil and natural gas. Besides being cheap to manufacture and distribute, they were effectively protective of what they contained, whether frozen, airtight or as convenience bags. These containers transformed the industries of distribution and packaging of food and consumer goods throughout the world. Their emergence coincided with, or perhaps contributed greatly to, much of the world’s past 30+ year modern-day history.

During this period of time the Earth’s population started to increase almost exponentially, and its food and material goods demands rose accordingly, resulting in trading, manufacturing, importing, exporting and consumption patterns becoming globalized. Plastic bags and their vast accompanying array of containment products (especially plastic bottles) have become a seemingly essential part of the ensuing global enterprises.

It is estimated that at this moment in time the world’s population utilizes more than 500 billion (500,000,000,000) plastic bags a year – at a rate of approximately 1 million/minute. They require the equivalent of 60 million gallons of oil or natural gas for production. Depending upon the county utilizing them, less than 4% get recycled. They may perhaps be burned as a highly inefficient fuel source, make new bags, or be recycled into relatively durable plastic products such as outdoor furniture, trash containers, ornamental pots, etc. Again, and highly dependant upon where in the world they are being disposed, they might either be deposited with municipal trash, literally dumped out of /within sight, or dumped in a nearby river, stream, canyon or the sea. If by chance they do get buried, it can take between 100 to 1,000 years for them to decompose completely. To hide their unsightly presence, many break down into smaller pieces, thereby becoming more edible to wildlife. However they still do not decompose. During this period their major but slow decomposition product is methane, one of the most troublesome of all greenhouse gases. If dumped in such a way that they can be transported by wind or water, they are chemically stable enough to still take years and years to decompose. They travel for literally thousands of miles, litter up the land everywhere, and provide tempting-looking food sources for the millions of birds as well as land and sea creatures they eventually kill by their ingestion. We certainly see many thousands of these pieces of plastic right here in the Southwest alongside every roadside, stream, river, canyon, mountain trail and desert area.

Before leaving the subject of the final resting place for our precious plastic bags, it is worth noting that perhaps our suffering planet’s greatest and least known tragedy is the vast quantity of plastic bags and other plastic trash that finally gets swept into the oceans of the world and collected by their vortex currents into regions several thousand square miles in an area known as Gyres. The most well known and most studied is the North Pacific Gyre, about a thousand miles off the Californian coast, and covering an area at least twice that of Texas. Ocean currents mainly from Asia, India and the USA have carried over 40,000 pieces of plastic litter per square mile there. It is choking the ocean’s plant life and sea creatures, and practically relegating this region to becoming a “dead zone.” According to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and several others, there is strong evidence of 4 other similar major Gyres in the Indian, North and South Atlantic and South Pacific Oceans, and lesser ones elsewhere. With a growing worldwide human need for fish, and the expanding evidence that the majority of mankind’s thirst for oil and natural gas is also going to be wrested from the seabed and below, the prospects for our oceans to continue supporting the world’s ecosystem and providing a major portion of our food supply do not look too rosy, as is being currently demonstrated in the Gulf of Mexico.

Well! Well! Well! One might ask, “So what can be done?” In 2001 Ireland became extremely concerned about its consumption of about 1.2 billion plastic bags (316 per person) a year. It imposed a tax on plastic bags that reduced its consumption by 96% within a year. Several cities within the US have finally resorted to this solution to essentially reduce the pressure that plastic bag disposal places on municipal resources. Some are even considering banning the use of “free” plastic bags at the checkout counter. Sadly, since 2001 Ireland does not appear to be within the World’s Top “10” in financial leadership, and even the mention of additional taxes to solve any sort of problem raises the ire of most of our plastic bag users. One indisputable fact does remain however. In the end, the market cost of any product does seem to determine how much it gets consumed. Perhaps a Federally mandated surcharge of perhaps a dollar per bag MIGHT make us all think before using them. If one does not wish to to pay the surcharge, then it’s quite simple: DON’T TAKE THE BAG – BRING YOUR OWN – or CARRY THE PRODUCT TO THE CAR IN THE CART. Interestingly, many major grocery stores are trying to induce us to do just that by offering 5 cents for every reusable bag one takes to the store. My wife and I have meticulously used reusable bags and collected just over $52 – 5 cents at a time, in two years from our local grocery store. Even for two of us, that is a saving of about 10 bags/week, over 1,000 in two years, and $52 for our favorite charity. Imagine the corresponding economics for a USA population of 300+ million or the world’s 3+ billion.

So there we have it: The next time we are offered a plastic bag to cart our goods from the store, the following thought might perhaps flash across our busy minds. Shall we:

Clutter up our municipal waste with a product that evolves greenhouse gases?

Choke a bird to death?

Kill a fish, plankton or other creature and its habitat at the same time?

Litter a highway, stream, river, mountain trail or desert?

Dump it anywhere that’s convenient?

Put it in a trash bin where it might get recycled?

Return it to a store that collects them for recycling?

OR

Do the easy thing:

BRING OUR OWN BAG.

PERHAPS GET A REFUND FROM THE STORE.

DON’T PAY A SURCHARGE IF IT IS EVENTUALLY MANDATED.

It’s not the complete answer. It is an important issue, and as in most cases, the choice is ours.