Tuesday, March 24, 2015

One step forward... two back?



I often liken myself to a pack mule, a description my husband reluctantly agrees with… but before you start picturing a frail skinny creature, slave to a cruel overlord or the clich├ęd woman with a large handbag filled to bursting with a gazillion whatchamacallits and doodads let me clarify. That is how I look when I return from a list checking, efficient and comprehensive multi-store weekly grocery run. I hang my genetically broad shoulders (I kid myself by chalking it up to years of swimming) with 4, 5 and sometimes 6 reusable fabric bags, in a myriad of colors, filled to the brim with all the fuel needed to keep those shoulders and the body they're attached to, healthy for the next shopping trip. To maintain this self-perpetuating cycle, I keep reusable bags everywhere I might possibly need it - in the car, at home, in my handbag - so I never have to use one of the supermarket bags.

Why do I put myself through that you ask? When I could just grab a bag at the store as I needed it. Let me tell you why...

Plastic bags are not only ugly and environmentally unfriendly when manufactured but with less than 0.5% of them recycled most end up littering streets, clogging landfills, scattered through the wilderness and most critically in water. With about 10% ending up in the ocean, plastic bags are the second highest form of garbage found in the ocean (after cigarette butts). In 2010, a gray whale that was beached and died in Seattle was found to have more than 20 plastic bags in its stomach. One in three leatherback sea turtles have plastic in their stomach, most often a plastic bag. Every year about 100,000 turtles, whales, birds and other marine animals die after consuming plastic bags they mistake as food or from getting entangled in them. And if that doesn't tug at your heart strings and make you think differently, let’s see if we can get to you through your stomach. All those low-density polyethylene, petroleum based products break down and release toxins into the seawater which find their way to most marine life, including fish, and from there to your plate. YUM!

Still in doubt about how bad this is? Let me give you some facts to outline the magnitude of the issue. Consumers in the US alone go through about 100 billion plastic bags a year and a staggering 1 trillion worldwide, that's about 150 bags per person per year. The manufacturing process for these bags consumes about 4.5 times the amount of energy as a reusable/green bag yet plastic bags take up to a 1000 years to degrade; and even then, they only break down into smaller components, which are still toxic and contaminate the soil, waterways and the air.

That's why I was so excited in September 2014, when California passed a new law, banning stores from giving out those awful, flimsy single use plastic bags to shoppers for free. Instead stores would charge an extra 10c per bag (paper or plastic) that the customer used, hopefully encouraging more people to quit the plastic habit and switch to reusable bags. While clearly not the solution to all environmental challenges this law would have been the first statewide ban in the US and could have been a key first step in reducing the environmental impact of human waste.

Other places that have enforced similar laws have seen the use of plastic bags drop significantly ... up to 95% in Ireland's County Cork and over 60% in Australia. Complete and partial bans are also in place in countries like Rwanda, Italy, Mauritania, India, China and at least 12 more. The funny thing is that more than a 100 local cities and towns in California including SFO already have bans in place. Other cities in the US including Portland OR, Boulder CO, Austin TX and many more have had bans in place since as early as 2007.

Imagine my disappointment then, when in February this year, the pro plastic bag lobby, managed to get 110% of the signatures needed to overturn the ban and put it to a vote by Californians in 2016. So it goes on hold...! The arguments against it range from job loss for those currently in the plastic industry (the CA law provides financial assistance for just such an outcome) to the surcharge being a "tax" on consumers that would only benefit stores.

Even some conservationists argue that a plastic bag ban wouldn't really make a big dent in the overall environmental impact, that paper bags were just as dangerous and encouraging the use of reusable bags was only one part of the solution; a more significant cultural shift away from a use & throw mentality was necessary.

While I agree that more far reaching and broad changes are required to halt or even reverse the impact of modern civilization on the environment than this one little change, would we not all sleep with slightly fuller hearts and healthier bellies when one less animal was poisoned or choked to death by a throwaway, hazardous and completely unnecessary plastic bag?

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