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Plastic bags are suffocating us

Time to change our shopping habits

By Charles Kalish

March 27, 2007

The Plastic Bag Industry has waged an intensive public relations campaign. They want to stop legislation that would eliminate the plastic bag problem in San Francisco. They are clever, crafty, and, of course, well-funded.

The truth is that plastic bags are a worldwide environmental disaster. The second truth is, countries around the world are successfully eliminating plastic bags from their shopping cultures.

Plastic bags are a lot worse than we ever could have imagined. It's hard to believe they only arrived on the shopping scene about 25 years ago. Presently, between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year according to Vincent Cobb, founder of reusablebags.com.

The problem is so bad that Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on the planet, has banned their manufacture and distribution. They discovered their sewers were blocked up by millions of plastic bags that contributed to the enormous devastation caused by recent floods.

In South Africa - once one of the most beautiful countries on earth - plastic bags are referred to as the "national flower". There are two floating islands of plastic bags in the Pacific Ocean, each reported to be the size of Texas.

Ireland was so inundated with the plastic bag menace that in 2002 it imposed a bag fee of approximately 20 cents. Within three years the Irish (with no consumer riots) have changed their shopping habits and reduced plastic bag usage by a whopping 90%.

That's why the Plastic Bag industry is coming out with its PR guns blazing. They have everything to lose. In Ireland, those bag companies that could not adapt their business model to the new reality, are no longer in business.

The problem with plastic bags is that the material is not bio-degradable. It is photo-degradable, meaning it simply breaks up into smaller and smaller parts of the same material. Because of its molecular structure plastic bags made from petroleum derivatives cannot be digested in landfills like products made from naturally occuring materials.

Actually that's not completely true. Every species from plankton to whale is mistaking plastic particulates for food, and eating them. It's part of the ocean's food chain now. This means that when we eat seafood, we are running the risk of ingesting photo-degraded plastic.

And if that weren't bad enough, the ocean plastic has been found in a 2001 study in Japan to attract PCBs in enormous quantities. So we're eating PCBs as well.

Beaches, even in the remotest places on earth, are found to have measurable amounts of plastic particulate in the sand.

Sea turtles eat the plastic and die.

Sea birds get strangled by plastic bags.

Once pristine coral reefs off the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia now are coated with black plastic bags, hanging in the once pristine waters like dead fish until they settle on and strangle the ancient coral reef.

San Francisco spends at least $8.5 million per year (17 cents a bag) and probably much, much more on the disposal of plastic bags. They foul the machinery at the waste disposal center; they contaminate the recyclables, decreasing their value; they contaminate our bay; they get stuck in our trees and our power lines.

They are the second leading cause of suffocation among babies.

The Bush administration, of course, will not help. They have demonstrated an unimaginable disrespect for the world's environment. But that does not mean that cities like San Francisco cannot defend themselves from this ignorance.

Many movements in this country began in San Francisco. We can start our own environmental movement that can repeat itself in cities and towns all over the country. We can demonstrate to other cities that they too can defy our federal government. That we, like the Irish, can solve our own environmental problems in an enlightened manner.

We can start with the seemingly innocuous plastic bag. We can do what it takes to change our shopping habits, reduce our usage by 90% within three years, save millions of dollars in the process and take charge of our own environmental destiny.

Charles Kalish




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