The Eco Echo Newsletter

Plastic Bags

Plastic bags begin as crude oil, natural gas, or petrochemical derivatives that are transformed into resins. The resin is heated and extruded, flattened, sealed, punched, and printed on. The environmental cost of plastic bags is huge. The plastic bags that have inundated our planet are derived from a non-renewable resource; they never break down completely; they strangle wildlife; and they clog single stream recycling machinery.

According to the EPA, only 1% of plastic bags were recycled in 2000 and so progress was made when in 2006 an almost 500% growth in industry capacity led to a 5% rate. When one ton of plastic bags is reused as something else other than plastic bags or recycled, the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil is saved although most bags are produced from natural gas derived stock.

• Reusing a bag meant for just one use has a big impact. A sturdy, reusable bag needs only be used 11 times to have a lower environmental impact than using 11 disposable plastic bags.

• In New York City alone, one less grocery bag per person per year would reduce waste by 109 tons and save $11,000 in disposal costs.

• Plastic bags carry 80 percent of the nation’s groceries, up from 5 percent in 1982.

• When one ton of plastic bags is reused or recycled, the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil is saved.

Some 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags—including large trash bags, thick shopping bags, and thin grocery bags—were produced globally in 2002, according to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2004 report. Roughly 80 percent of those bags were used in North America and Western Europe. Every year, Americans reportedly throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags, which can clog drains, crowd landfills, and leave an unsightly blot on the landscape.

Perhaps less widely known is the destructive impact that plastic bags have on oceans and marine life. Tossed into waterways or washed down storm drains, the bags are the major source of human-related debris on the seabed, particularly near coastlines, according to the 2007 Worldwatch report Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity. At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, and plastics and other synthetic materials cause the most problems for marine animals and birds.

Every year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags. The animals may mistake the bags for food, such as jellyfish, or simply become entangled. Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to break down, so even when an animal dies and decays after ingesting a bag, the plastic re-enters the environment, posing a continuing threat to wildlife. While most plastic bags eventually break down into tiny particles, smaller sea creatures may still eat the sand-sized fragments and concentrate toxic chemicals in their bodies.

Please…save a life, save a planet: choose reusable cloth grocery bags. It really IS easy to be “green”!





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