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  • Kitty Pityer

The Ubiquitous Plastic Bag

It looks so innocent. Usually a pristine white; sometimes a cheery yellow or even a mellow

green. Often it boasts a smiley face, the words “thank you,” or simply the name of the business from which it came. How could a single plastic bag be a problem?

But wait a moment. When you shop at the grocery store or your favorite big box store, do you leave with a single plastic bag? Or is it more likely to be five, ten or even a cartful if you are doing a big shopping trip?

The average American uses 500 plastic bags each year. "Uses" isn’t quite the correct word. "Uses" means to “employ for some purpose.” Taking a plastic bag solely to transport the items it contains from the store to your home and then discarding it doesn’t seem enough to fulfill the intent of the definition. The lifespan of the average plastic bag is approximately fifteen minutes before its usefulness ends and it becomes waste.

Although plastic bags are said to be recyclable, only one in 200 is actually recycled. Many of

those that make it to a recycling facility get tangled in the equipment, preventing other items from being recycled. Most bags are sent to landfill sites where scientists predict they may take hundreds of years to photodegrade. But photodegrade doesn’t mean they disintegrate and go away. It simply means they break down into tiny toxic particles that contaminate the area around the bag. And those plastic bags that are actually recycled are really only “downcycled” into another plastic item that is not recyclable.

If plastic bags are caught on a gust of wind and land in a stream or river, they eventually will

make their way to the ocean. Plastic bags are among the top twelve items littering the world’s coastlines. When they end up in the ocean, they endanger sea creatures who can become entangled in the bags and drown, or mistake them for food.

It gets worse from there.

While communities and countries around the world have banned or taxed the use of plastic bags and seen significant reductions in plastic waste, the United States has major hurdles. Several states--including Wisconsin--have succumbed to the plastic industry’s lobbying efforts. Wisconsin, along with seventeen other states, has passed statewide laws prohibiting a community from banning plastic bags. These are called "preemptive bag laws" and in many states, including our own, the wording of the law is almost identical--a testament to the work of the plastic lobby, who drafted laws for state legislators to copy and paste their names onto.

It wasn't always this way. Plastic bags were first introduced in 1977, less than 50 years ago. Production in that time has gone from zero to 500 billion (that’s 500 followed by nine zeros) per year. Plastic bags are now used worldwide at the rate of 1 million each minute.

But what did we do before the introduction of plastic bags to hold items we purchase, plastic bags to line our waste baskets and garbage cans, and plastic bags to hold our sandwiches and cookies? We carried reusable cloth shopping bags. Food waste was composted and everything else was placed in a metal container that was washed out after each use, eliminating the need for a plastic bag liner. Sandwiches were wrapped in waxed paper. These are very simple alternatives that each one of us can easily do today.

In less than 50 years, the plastics industry has created a monster that is consuming our planet at a frightening rate. It is now time to tame that monster. How? By changing our everyday habits, demanding that the manufacturers reduce the plastic they use, and insisting that our representatives pass legislation that benefits the planet rather than damages it.

Need somewhere to start? We've got 10 first steps to get you going. And be sure to join us for Plastic Free July--we're giving away reusable bags to celebrate!


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