Plastic Bags


(This 917th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 19, 2008.)


My fellow Buffalo Audubon Society board member, Allen Ernst, recently called my attention to a web posting about plastic bags. I consider this a very important issue so I collected additional information that I share with you here.


Data released by the United States Environmental Protection Agency shows that over 500 billion bags are used worldwide each year.


Less than one percent of those bags are recycled. Why? The economics simply does not work: it costs $4000 to process and recycle one ton of plastic bags, which is then worth $32.


Our National Academy of Sciences reported in 1975 that oceangoing vessels dumped 8 million pounds of plastic annually. The rest, of course, ended in landfills or, even worse, sewers. For many of those plastics neither is the end of the line. They have been found north of the Arctic Circle near Spitzbergen and as far south as the Falkland Islands. They account for over one-tenth of the debris washed up on the United States coastline.


Many birds, dolphins and turtles have been found choking on or entangled with plastic bags. The World Wildlife Fund reports individuals of nearly 200 species of sea life killed. Land birds and animals are also affected: even a lion was photographed struggling with plastic caught in its mouth.


It is important to note that plastic bags are an oil-based product. The polyethylene they are made from is a thermoplastic made from oil. Thus reducing our use of plastic bags would reduce our dependence on oil and over time could even save us at the gas pump.


When they do degrade, plastics break down into toxic petro-polymers which contaminate our soils and waterways.


In addressing our plastics problems, we're falling behind other nations: Bangladesh and Rwanda have banned plastic bags entirely and China has banned the issue of free bags. Ireland taxes them, as a result reducing their number by 90%. Israel, Canada, western India, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Taiwan and Singapore are in the process of banning them, while in this country, San Francisco has banned them and Oakland and Boston are moving in that direction.


How much oil is being saved? The partial ban of plastic bags in China alone is saving that country 27 million barrels of oil each year, a very significant contribution to that country's economy.


Here is a clear opportunity for citizens to contribute to our country's long-term welfare and I urge readers to do two things in response to this clear situation.


First, reduce your use of plastic bags. Begin to use cloth bags or your own shopping carts for your groceries.


Other countries have done this for years. Shortly after I arrived in England thirty years ago, I took a number of items to the check-out counter of a grocery. After I paid, the items remained on the counter. I asked for a bag in which to put them. "We don't use bags," the clerk replied but, because I was a newcomer, he went off into a back room and found me a cardboard box in which to carry my groceries. I learned my lesson and brought my own carrier when I shopped from then on.


Notice that I do not recommend simply asking for paper bags. There are landfill problems with them as well, not nearly as serious as those with plastic bags but important nonetheless.


Led by Mary Canfield, the Buffalo Audubon Society plans to sell canvas shopping bags during its 2009 100th Anniversary Year.


Second, demand that our legislators address this situation.


You know what the initial response to this will be. "If we enact such a law, people will be inconvenienced and shop elsewhere." Note, however, that the "shop elsewhere" argument is defeated when the law is universal. We can be assured that the plastics suppliers will use all kinds of arguments to defeat any attempts at legislation, but we won on the bottle bill and we can win on this as well.


There is one other aspect of this that we should consider. Less than 0.1% of our population is sacrificing in our current wars. Here is a chance for the rest of us to show that we too can contribute to our society.-- Gerry Rising