By John Bain via GoodB
At this point, it’s obvious that our society needs to make basic changes to its energy infrastructure. If you’re like me, you might be excited that the transition from oil to sustainable energy is just beginning to take on steam. However, all these changes make it easy to forget the personal focus of the original environmental movement. That is: conservation is something you and I must engage in on a daily basis, and if everyone helps out a little we will eventually see a worthwhile change.
So when you go to the grocery store, why are you still asking for plastic?
Yes, it turns out that to help save the planet, you actually have to do something. Something as simple as bringing a reusable bag next time you go to the supermarket. However, state and local governments can also help by banning plastic bags altogether. The documentar!y Bag It!, filmed to support a proposed plastic-bag ban in Boston, cuts to the heart of this issue with a couple revealing statistics. For instance, it costs $4000 to recycle a ton of plastic bags, so only about 5% of major recyclers accept them. Instead, local governments tell people to take them back to the store, where they are most likely just thrown away.
And that’s the last thing we want, since plastic bags only decompose after… well, as this Slate article tells us, there’s no way of knowing how long it takes plastic to break down since it’s only been around for about 50 years. In fact, plastic doesn’t biodegrade in the traditional way because it is a synthetic material; the sun has to break it down over time, and estimates for the length of this process range between 500 and 1,000 years.
So why not just use paper bags? As a commentator in Bag It! notes, the upshot of these is that they’re biodegradable — however, as it turns out they are both expensive to produce and wasteful of wood and water. Well, that’s fine – let’s get over it and start using reusable bags when we shop. It’s just a bag!
But in California, after a huge amount of infighting a recent plastic bag ban failed to pass in the State Senate. What gives? Why do lawmakers care so much – besides lobbyist dollars from the petrochemical industry, of course?
There is a viable objection to forcing businesses not to use plastic bags from a libertarian standpoint, which is why many California state senators rejected the proposal. “It’s my business,” you might say. “Let me run it how I want.” I hear you. This issue is a somewhat regrettable example of the government having to micromanage our lives – people should be doing this on their own. But they don’t.
And the stakes are too high for us to ignore this any longer. I don’t mind my personal liberty being slightly curtailed in this manner if it will help save the planet – I really have bigger things to worry about than my God-given right to plastic bags. In theory a law like this may be “about” more than just plastic bags, but at the end of the day it really is just a plastic bag. Call me when they come for the Bill of Rights.
Our failures to create sane personal and local policies about this material belie the global consequences of the way we deal with plastic waste. Enter the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Or actually, don’t, because it’s an incredibly gross soup of plastic waste stretching from Japan to California. The media has tended to portray this “patch” as a literal island of plastic twice the size of Texas; however, recent research has revealed the plastic exists mostly as particles rather than as a visible mass. That’s not to say there isn’t a “trash island” out there (plastic waste tends to congregate in one area due to ocean currents), but it’s smaller than most of the media would have you believe.
In any case, the existence of a contiguous “trash island” would be better than what’s really happening. Rather than breaking down completely, like an organic substance would, plastic is merely turning into particles and being ingested by plankton. This report states that in 11 random samples of North Pacific ocean water, the mass of plastic was six times greater than that of plankton. Think about that for a second. This is the source of most of the world’s water. Not only that, but consider the effects it could have on marine wildlife, including the fish we eat. Gives you pause.
Mind you, this is all in the Pacific Ocean, so where do you think a lot of it comes from? California! Not to mention rapidly developing economies like that of China, and already-established consumer nations such as Japan. Things like this are why I support this planet eventually jettisoning its garbage into space. What’s the worst that could happen — species-wide embarrassment when environmentalist aliens notice a massive floating ball of our trash? But that’s a political issue for the next century.
So it is ours to ask, right now: What am I going to do about it? Buy plastic water bottles?
No, we need to make change for everyone because we are everyone. We’re guilty on a personal level, to be sure — but the blame also lies in our complicity with governments that continue to prop up plastic. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the result of millions of individuals making millions of choices they didn’t think would matter in the long run. Remember that plastic bag you threw away 10 years ago? I didn’t think you would.
So… What are you going to do about it?
Image source: Rakka