Conservation Corner – March 2015

Demise of single-use plastic bags?

Pauline Lee

Can you believe that about one million plastic bags are used every minute around the world? In the U.S. the average family accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store, costing the retailers $4 billion annually. Only 0.5-3 percent of all bags are recycled. Ten percent of the plastic produced every year worldwide winds up in the ocean. Plastic bags have become the second most common garbage in the ocean, the most common being cigarette butts. The extremely slow decomposition rate of plastic bags leaves them to drift on the ocean for many years. They cause the death of many marine animals (fish, sea turtles, etc.) every year when animals mistake them for food. Plastic bags can photodegrade into 46,000 smaller pieces in one square mile of ocean. The smaller fragments readily soak up toxins. Then they contaminate soil, waterways and foods that are consumed by animals and man.

Fortunately our culture’s use and toss practice can be replaced by switching to reusable bags. One model of such change started in March of 2002 in Ireland which banned the use of disposable single-use plastic bags and introduced a plastic bag fee called Plas Tax to rein in consumption of 1.2 billion plastic shopping bags per year. An individual pays a fee of $.15 per plastic bag consumed at check out. In the first year the consumption of plastic bags dropped by 1 billion and the tax raised approximately $9.6 million. This money was earmarked for a green fund established to benefit the environment. The 90 percent decrease in usage of plastic bags resulted in great reduction in litter and saved approximately 18,000,000 liters of oil that would have been needed to produce those bags. Reusable shopping bags have replaced disposable plastics; companies have stopped making the latter but manufacturing of reusable shopping bags has grown. At the same time retailers saved about $50 million a year by not giving away free bags. Under the new law, exemptions from the tax were made for heavier weight reusable plastic bags or bags used for meat, fish, poultry, unpackaged produce, ice or other foods without packaging. According to the latest study by the Irish Department of the Environment, the use of bags per person dropped from 328 to 21 per year – a 93.5 percent drop! The nominal fee per bag at checkout taught people to stop thoughtless use of plastic bags.

Last year California passed a law banning single-use plastic bags. At the same time they will levy a surcharge of at least $.10 on paper bags, compostable bags and even reusable plastic bags. Several other countries and cities around the world are now considering implementing a similar tax, including the UK, Australia and New York City. Everyone can help with improving our environment and reduce the expense incurred by wasteful use of plastic bags. Stop use-and-toss plastic bags, but reduce, reuse and recycle plastic bags.