How to Rid America of the Problem of Plastic Bags

Joe Baker


From our content partner New America Media:


How often do you visit the supermarket? Research indicates that the average American consumer takes home almost 1,500 shopping bags a year. The U.S., as a whole, goes through 100 billion single-use plastic bags annually; worldwide, the number reaches over one trillion.


It gets worse: less than 5 percent of plastic grocery bags are recycled within the U.S. That's a huge problem because the high-density polyethylene used to make them can take more than 1,000 years to degrade. Once discarded, those bags are often blown by the wind from landfills and can enter our oceans, contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that stretches for hundreds of miles across the North Pacific Ocean. Described as a "toxic plastic soup," this is one of the most terrifying examples of just how much human activity is violating the planet.


On land, the slow decomposition of all those plastic bags means that they take up tons and tons of landfill space. This ecological nightmare has another scary aspect: the 12 million barrels of oil used to make those 100 billion plastic bags for US consumption. Plastic bags are made from natural gas or petroleum that formed over millions of years, yet they are often used for mere minutes before being discarded to make their way to a dump—if they don’t blow away and end up as litter first.


Quite literally, we are destroying our planet by using plastic bags.


What is being done?


Thankfully, across the U.S., there exist 212 ordinances banning the use of plastic bags. More than 20 million Americans live in communities with plastic bag bans, including large cities like Chicago, Seattle and Austin. The state of California leads the pack, with 139 cities and counties having such laws on the books. It looked like the Golden State would be the first state to pass such a ban, when Governor Brown signed it into law last year, to take effect July 1, 2015. However, the American Progressive Bag Alliance—a pro-plastic industry group with a somewhat misleading name—raised $3.2 million (mostly from outside the state) to gather over 800,000 signatures forcing a measure to repeal SB270, the plastic bag ban, onto the ballot in November 2016.


Since so many cities and counties in California already have their own ordinances banning plastic bags, this may seem futile. But it does make clear that there is big money behind the drive to retain the use of plastic bags.



What Actions Can We Take To Rid Ourselves Of Plastic Bags?


This is not just about banning plastic bags, although it is an important step to take. Rather, we need to raise awareness of our environment and how fragile it is. As consumers, we need to change our habits and our way of thinking.


We live in a society that seems fine with disposability and obsolescence, but the consequences of such a mindset can be enormous.


The good news is that there are plenty of ways to take action:


Educate Yourself


As you decline those plastic bags at the store, you are sure to be asked, "What's wrong with plastic bags?" You need to be ready with an answer. Have the facts at your fingertips about the impact plastic bags have on the environment, as well as the broader issues such as landfill impact and unsustainable lifestyles. And it doesn't hurt to have some success stories to hand: in Ireland there was a massive (97.5 percent) reduction in the number of plastic bags given out after shops started charging for them.


Buy Your Own Reusable Bags


Just say "no thanks" to both plastic and paper bags (they're not much better for the environment) at the store and carry your stuff home in a reusable tote bag. Many supermarkets carry these for sale at the checkout counter, but you've probably already got some lying around at home. And keep them handy in a variety of places.


Create an Online Petition


If you check out the local ordinances for plastic bag bans, you'll find that many of them are the results of actions by everyday citizens, who found other like-minded folk and brought this issue to their local governments. You can start with an online petition, which is free to create and a great way to reach out to the people in your community to both educate them about the dangers of plastic bags and rally support for a ban.



Plastic Bags Are Everywhere


You probably use those flimsy plastic bags for produce items, but you don't need to. You're going to wash your tomatoes, broccoli, and potatoes before you use them anyway, so why do they need a plastic shroud? Retail stores also love their plastic bags, and of course, food-to-go may come in both paper and plastic. Learn to avoid all varieties of plastic bag.


Recent research indicates that fees for bags can be effective, but not because of the relatively minor cost that makes people decide to bring their own bags with them to the store. Rather, this small change forces consumers to change their habits, and also increases their environmental awareness by inviting them to reflect on what they truly value. Where will you start?


Author Bio:


Joe Baker is the Vice President, Editorial and Advocacy for Care2 and ThePetitionSite. Prior to Care2, Joe was the Executive Director of N-TEN. He also worked for Amnesty International USA as the Director of Internet Communications after serving as Grassroots Advocacy Director and Deputy Director, Western Region. Joe serves on the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, the Advisory Board of and volunteers for the Sierra Club and Amnesty International.

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