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Let's Ban Plastic Bags Already

Let’s Ban Plastic Bags Already, Please.

My organization is working to ban plastic bags in the State of Washington. Not all bags, but the thin film bags that you get at the counter for free at stores. You know, the brown ones or white ones you get at the register at the grocery store, pharmacy, and other retail stores.

It seems like such a small thing to me, really. But some folks might wonder why.

I’ve learned a lot about plastic bags over the course of my work. Apparently, only 6% of them ever get recycled. That leaves the other 94% to end up in the trash at a landfill, or blowing around in the environment, on our streets, or in our waters. A LOT of plastic ends up in our waters.

Surprisingly, plastic bags can’t be recycled, really, in the state of Washington. Check your county’s website or the recycle bin itself for a list of what can and can’t go in: plastic bags are in the “trash” category. When you dump your bags in your recycling, they commingle with actual recyclables and gum up recycling machinery. It’s pretty costly and time consuming to have somebody clean the film out of the machinery once it gets in there.

So next time you throw your plastic bags into the recycling bin expecting them to just “go away,” and feel good about doing your part? Newsflash: you’re not. While you might be able to ball them up and return them to certain stores, sometimes those stores also just throw them away. The best thing for you to do is to not pick use the plastic bag in the first place. Since most people don’t know this, we’re trying to help out by taking these nasty things out of circulation.

For the 94% of bags that end up in the landfill or the environment, they take a very long time to break down. I’ve seen ranges of estimates of the amount of time it takes them to break down, and scientists estimate it could take up to 1,000 years. We don’t know for sure yet because plastic bags have only been around for about 50 years. This is disappointing, as we use them for, on average, about 10-12 minutes while carrying our new goodies home. That’s it. Talk about wasteful.

We know that bags don’t always end up or stay in the landfill. Think about the last time you walked or driven down a street in your hometown. Did you see any plastic bags along the street, in the bushes, or in the stormdrains? Check closer, next time. From hundreds of beach cleanups organized by the International Coastal Cleanup in 2018, plastic bags were amongst the top ten most commonly found litter items. This statistic is consistent with data from Washington State.

We also know that plastic bags do not readily biodegrade in the environment. Plastic bags break down into little pieces, called microplastics (less than 5 mm long), which pollute the environment. In 2001, researchers found that the mass of microscopic plastic fragments in the North Pacific Central Gyre was 6 times higher than of plankton. Gross. Critters eat these bits of plastic, sometimes confusing it for food. Microplastics have been found in a high percentage of autopsied fish, birds, and other critters. These tiny pieces of plastic – some as small as teeny little threads - are so ubiquitous that it’s even been found in 97% of bottled water tested. Bottled. Drinking water. Which means we humans are also consuming our own plastic.

We’re not sure yet just how bad this problem is, because we haven’t known about it long enough and don’t understand the real consequences. But yuck.

Plastic bags are a petrochemical product. They’re made from polymers derived from cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil through a polymerisation or polycondensation process– yes, your bag was most likely made from oil. If you believe in climate change and are concerned about your carbon footprint, phasing out the use of these dirty little bags is another way you can walk the walk. (But obviously, there are hundreds of products we use that are also derived from petrochemicals, so you should be mindful of the alternatives and the other, bigger footprints you may be causing by, say, heating your home, driving a car, and other activities).

Before they break down in the environment, some critters have even been known to eat them whole. Bags have been found in the stomachs of whales and marine mammals. Bags and pieces of bags can clog the stomachs of animals and cause them to starve to death. According to Ocean Crusaders, a non-profit, 100,000 marine creatures a year die from plastic entanglement - and these are the ones found. Approximately 1 million sea birds also die from plastic. That’s a lot.

So this is why I personally think we, as a species, should ban plastic bags (amongst lots of other nasty things we currently create, extract and use).

Opponents feel that banning bags is an inconvenience, but really, the point is to encourage people to bring their own reusable bags – of whatever type you like. Cotton, woven plastic, homemade bags from upcycled old clothing, canvas, a backpack - WHATEVER.

The Reusable Bag Act, HB1205 in Washington, bans the use of thin film plastic bags from retail stores, and requires that paper bags be provided as an alternative. It also allows for a thicker, reusable plastic bag to be provided at checkout counters. These 3 mil bags are a sturdier alternative to thin film bags. Honestly I’m not quite thrilled about this concession, but that’s how the sausage gets made.

Because paper and thicker plastic bags are more expensive to produce, and thus in some cases more expensive for grocers and retail stores to buy and provide to customers, the bill requires stores to charge a 10 cent pass through charge for these bags in order to cover their costs. This fee is taxable in Washington state. “Pass through” charge means the customer (you and me) have to pay 10 cents for the paper or 3 mil bags at the register. This is totally reasonable because, duh, the 10 cents covers the cost the retailer needs to pay to buy them.

The bill also provides exemptions for folks who can’t afford the 10 cent charge, i.e., if you’re enrolled in a food assistance program. This should help in instances where folks can’t afford the fee, can’t afford more expensive cotton or other forms of reusable bags, and provides alternatives that should help in climates where it rains a lot (like Seattle). Rainy weather causes concerns about goods getting wet or bags breaking on your way home – particularly for pedestrian and bus commuters – so having the thicker plastic bags available as an alternative helps.

Opponents say, somehow, that this bill will put people out of business, and that it will be a job killer. Not so. Grocers and retailers will have their costs covered by the new pass-through charge. Timber and bag companies will make money producing the bags that can be provided at the register – in fact, timber/paper bag companies will see an increase in revenue because of increased demand for paper bags. Sounds like a win-win, to me.

Opponents also say banning bags might cause confusion. Folks will show up to their stores unaware, and won’t know what to do when they can’t get a flimsy film bag anymore! Folks won’t understand that they can no longer rely on a free bag at the counter. Not so. The bill includes funding for education for cashiers and store clerks to inform customers of the changes (a public outreach and education effort). There will be alternatives: bags available for a 10 cent charge. And, these changes will encourage folks to bring their own, reusable bags from home. Imagine: a world where everyone goes to the store with their own bags, brings them home, and reuses them again and again!

It’s also interesting to note that under the current regime, something like 27 municipalities in Washington State have already banned plastic bags. This bill will actually reduce confusion, because now there will be consistency throughout the State, as opposed to a world where the rules differ from county to county, city to city.

Opponents also say that it takes more energy and has a greater impact on climate change to produce a cotton bag than it does to produce a plastic bag. This makes no sense. A reusable bag – whether cotton, canvas, burlap, jean, or whatever other material – is just that: reusable. Thin film bags last 12 minutes. I’ve got woven bags I’ve reused for years. You never need to get a new one, unless it breaks, and in that case, I can also sew the reusable bag to fix rips or tears.

Common sense says if the average American uses 300 to 700 plastic bags per year, (see, quoting but then switches and uses only, say, the same 5-15 reusable bags for a year or more, you are saving not just the energy used to make 300-700 plastic bags a year, but also preventing a TON of waste. You’re saving the energy used to transport the used plastic bags to the landfill or recycling facility, the energy and money expended to clear the film gunk out of recycling facilities when bags gum up machinery because they can’t be recycled, and the energy expended to ship plastic waste byproducts by barge to other countries, like China.

It seems like a huge no-brainer to me. California and Hawaii have already banned plastic bags, as has D.C., and 11 other major cities and counties in the U.S. In 2019, others are following suit and introducing legislation to ban bags and other single-use plastics. Let’s hope Washington State bans plastic bags in 2019!

Note: Washington’s bill applies to restaurants (yay!) but the bill doesn’t ban a lot of small bags, like the small bags you can get at the produce department in your grocery store, newspaper sleeves, and other types of small plastic bags for wet products, foods – like raw meat – that may pose a health risk concern (from leaking), or spillable foods.

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