Plastic shopping bags. They certainly serve a purpose. They are cheap and easy to produce and their light weight makes them ideal to keep shipping costs down. Reused, they make great liners for small trash cans or a convenient way to carry all sorts of things. But an image I will never forget was the very first time I visited a landfill and saw plastic bags clearly visible in every nearby tree looking somewhat a layer of spider webs. Years later, I learned that one of our local landfills even trained a monkey to climb the trees and retrieve these pesky air blown things! It’s not just a problem in landfills. You see them virtually everywhere; on roadsides, stuck in shrubbery and telephone wires, and in bodies of water. Yuck.
Of course, litter is not the only environmental concern with these and obviously this is not a new issue. But, I found it interesting to learn that plastic bags were once seen as the more environmentally friendly alternative to paper bags. More recent reports seem to find both equally as bad and conclude that using reusable bags instead is the much better choice environmentally. The energy and resources required to make just one plastic bag might not be terribly significant, but why are we mass producing and using so many in this country? To me that is the bigger concern.
On June 18th, Los Angeles adopted an ordinance banning the use of plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and some retailers. This will make Los Angeles the largest city in the United States to implement a single-use ban. Though California has been among the most progressive states in enacting environmental policy, Los Angeles is not alone in banning plastic shopping bags. Chicago, Aspen, and Eugene, Oregon have also implemented similar bans. Many others are also looking into charging a fee on bags. To most in the United States this seems like a drastic measure. However, it’s common practice among many European countries. The cultural norm is you bring your bag with you when you go shopping, or you often have to pay for one at the store. It makes perfect sense, after all plastic bags are not free. But here in the United States where putting items in a bag when purchased is common practice (often even if you are only purchasing one item that could easily be carried out), we don’t think about the cost because the cost is already included in everything we purchase! We are paying for it, like it or not.
Because of the cultural norm being so different in the U.S., naturally there is a lot of resistance in this country for a ban. Other states, like New York, have tried the less progressive approach to increase the recycling of plastic bags by requiring retailers to offer a recycling programs to their customers. The effectiveness of these programs is questionable and don’t reduce the number of plastic bags produced.
Colleges and Universities have looked at the issue. Tufts, California State University of Long Beach, University of Oregon, and Ithaca College have all lobbied to ban bags and actively encourage the use of reusable bags. Earlier this year, the University of Rochester’s Team Green began a similar campaign to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. Although there was some support, those who were against this idea were quite adamant. You will see quite the debate in the comments of our blog post on the topic. I wonder if there would be the same amount of push-back for a ban on bags? I tend to think that people are a bit more passionate when it comes to food and beverages. But, there is definitely a large number of people who believe in their right to choose and want to preserve that right, regardless of what the issue is. A strict ban on anything would be out of the question for these invidiuals.
Perhaps a compromise could be reached at the University some day, or a campaign to promote reusable bags on campus will begin. Plastic bags are most definitely ending up in our waste stream and we pay to have them hauled to a landfill. A few small student initiatives to collect and recycle bags have been formed, with not much impact. In my opinion, the way to be more successful is through source reduction. While I do not believe that banning plastic bags altogether is the ultimate answer, I’m all for doing it in campus setting.
By Amy Kadrie, Recycling Coordinator
Instructor: Jacqueline Stark
Krupnick Essay Contest Winner, 2007
The Argument Against Plastic
Products made from plastic are a part of every day life. We pour milk for our morning cereal out of a plastic bottle, drive to work in our cars with plastic components, and write reports on our computers using plastic keyboards. Plastics of any kind make our lives easier, and seemingly better. However, our love affair with plastic is not sustainable. As an ecologist who has travelled through 1st and 3rd world countries, I have seen the damage that plastic and its by-products are doing to our earth, and the imbalance our dependence on this product ics creating in the environment. We are all decent, educated people, and have the technology to research and produce ecologically sound alternatives to plastic. This is why we must urge industries all over the world to find alternatives to plastic when manufacturing their products, in order to reduce the usage of toxic petrochemicals, decrease the size of our landfills, and lessen the threat to our wildlife.
It may be a shock to some, but plastic in all of its forms is made from the same base ingredient – oil. Oils are rcefined, mixed with poisonous chemicals and cooked at high temperatures in order to produce items such as plastic bags, computer casings, automobile dashboards and cooking utensils. Such a process produces toxic by-products and greenhouse gasses, which in turn reduces our air quality and can degrade soil and waterways. In a study conducted by United States Environmental Board, the production of plastic in the United States releases 500 million tons of greenhouse gasses annually. When compared to the production of environmentally sustainable alternatives, such as metals, wood, concrete, paper and glass, emissions were much lower, releasing only five million tons of greenhouse gasses during the same time period. In similar studies conducted worldwide, the results were the same – Industries that produce ecologically sound alternatives produced emissions far less than those who manufacture plastic products. It is clear to see that these plastic alternatives are having less of an impact on our world, and we should continue to encourage manufacturers to seek economically feasible way to convert to their use.
The size of our landfills are always a concern, and knowing that many of the products that we dump in them are not biodegradable or recyclable is even more cause for alarm. Plastic is one of these products, which can take more than 1000 years to degrade and can only be recycled bcy a lengthy, expensive process. Plastic products, in particular, plastic shopping bags, account for more than half of the waste in landfills the world over. This is something that can be avoided, according to research undertaken by the University of California Santa Barbara in 2006. Their research suggested that a switch to degradable plastic alternatives during the next ten years within the United States will mean that the number of landfills needed will drop by 60 percent. This can be attributed to the fact that most plastic alternatives either degrade at a much faster rate (such as paper), or can be easily recycled (such as glass and metal). After seeing these figures, it makes sense to use these alternate products over plastics, as it can only help improve the quality of the environment.
When we throw our plastic products away, we often don’t think of where they can end up. Often, our garbage ends up in waterways, in parks, and on beaches where animals can easily come into contact with them. We have all seen in pictures and on television the pitiful sight of an animal with soda can rings around its neck, and I, myself, have seen creatures dead after choking on a plastic bag. This is something that can be prevented, if the move is made to ban plastic being manufactured in the first place. If plastics are not manufactured, there is no way that they can find their way into our environment. Some manufacturers are slowly making the change so that plastics have a lower effect on nature. In a recent meeting, The Industry Union of America and its 500 members made a pledge to use 40 percent more degradable materials, and contribute to sustainability movements in their local areas. This is an encouraging sign to us all and means that we are making headway in this issue.
I know that the opposition thinks that making the switch from plastic to degradable materials is going to be too difficult, and will take up valuable company funds in researching such alternatives. However, I urge the opposition to look to the future, and reflect upon the mounting evidence that the production of plastics is a threat to our earth and thus, to us. It is the responsibility of companies to deliver the best products possible to consumers, and part of this responsibility is ensuring that the products do minimal harm to the environment, and ultimately, humans. A temporary adjustment is well worth the long-term environmental security.
Though plastic products seem to make our lives easier, they will ultimately make our lives more difficult through the damage they cause to our air quality, soil and water, the clogging of our landfills, and the threat to our wildlife. If we continue to rely on such dangerous products, we will only add to the damage that has already been done. We must take action and urge manufacturing industries to find alternatives to plastic in their products, whether it be by petitioning companies to make the change, or choosing not to purchase their products in favour of those coccmpanies who use environmentally sound substitutes. By assisting in this change, we are all contributing to a better world.
(Please not that there is no Works Cited page for this essay, as the sources within the essay was generated by the student, as requested as the instructor of the class.)