February 13, 2012

Stopping Our Use of Plastic Bags - January 1

For 2012 I'm writing this blog to document things our family has done to be more Earth-friendly.  Below is the 'first' post of the year - for January 1 (I'm playing catch-up right now but hoping to gain some momentum with this post).  Hopefully you'll find some helpful ideas and decide to take some action to help promote a healthier planet.  I'd appreciate any feedback you have, and successes you have had so that my family can do more.


Plastic bags are a ubiquitous part of modern life and you probably encounter them every day, whether you're making a purchase, walking down the street, or at home or the office.  They're a convenience item and one that I took for granted in the past before thinking more about the impact they have, especially given the limited time of use I had for each bag.


It's hard to find concrete numbers on the environmental effects of plastic bags since it's a highly politicized issue and various groups use their own (often self-serving) figures and statistics.  A number of countries and cities including Ireland, Mexico City, and San Francisco have enacted plastic bag bans and surcharges to reduce the use of these bags and their impact on the environment.  Estimates of the lifespan of plastic bags (time it takes to fully degrade) range from 500 to 1000 years but the exact lifespan can only be estimated since they have existed for less than 100 years.  Regardless of the exact time it takes to fully decompose, it is a very long time and to put it in perspective if Christopher Columbus had used plastic bags on his voyage to North America, they would most likely still exist today.  Additionally, the time to decompose is longer in bodies of water than on land.

There is no firm number for the number of plastic bags produced and used each year but the EPA estimated that that United States uses 380 billion plastic bags each year (this figure was previously reported on the EPA website and cited in many articles but has since been removed and the EPA now does not report plastic bag information separately from plastics in general.  (Here's a 2007 CNN article that cited this EPA figure.) Using this estimate, each person in the United States uses approximately 1,150 plastic bags per year.  On a daily basis that would mean that every American uses more than 3 plastic bags every day of every year. Often these bags are only used for a few minutes before entering the refuse stream but will impact our environment for hundreds of years.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme estimates that plastic bags kill 100,000 turtles and other marine animals annually and that each square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of plastic.  Although the total time for a plastic bag to decompose is long, they do break down into smaller and smaller particles which can cause death to wildlife, but can also enter the food chain as fish and other animals eat the pieces of plastic and are then consumed by larger animals, including humans.  Again, there is a wide range of estimates of the impact that plastic bags have on wildlife and the environment, but it's a small effort to eliminate the use of plastic bags from your daily routine and to make a positive change for the world.  Even if you don't always avoid plastic bags, using fewer is a great step to take and even one less bag per person can make a huge difference in total.

Suggested action steps:

1) Purchase 10 reusable shopping bags - I'm a fan of ChicoBag products, but nearly every grocery store has reusable bags for sale, or sometimes for free.
2) Put a few bags in the trunk of your vehicle(s), put a couple by the front door, put a couple in your purse, backpack, stroller, or other carrying device you often use.
3) Refuse plastic (and paper) shopping bags when at the grocery store, hardware store, restaurant, library, department store, etc. and use your reusable bags.

If you have a few minutes, here's a semi-humorous mockumentary on the migrational habits of plastic bags.

Please let me know if you have any comments, compliments, criticisms, or questions regarding this post or have suggestions for future posts.

Thank you!

- John

Category: Shopping

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