Though consumers find single-use plastic bags convenient, they have consequences that must not be ignored. They blight our landscapes, can interfere with storm drains and find their way into local streams and finally the ocean.
Worse yet, they are not biodegradable and can last for centuries.
Recycling is not enough; we must limit the introduction of new bags into the system by encouraging the switch to reusable ones.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Reusable bags help to conserve energy; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; reduce marine debris by preventing pollution at its source; and avoid the environmental impacts to land, water and air associated with extraction and production of raw materials.”
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These are all good reasons to move toward the use of reusable containers, even if they are a bit less convenient.
One way to move consumers in the right direction would be to place a charge on each plastic bag, so they no longer appear to be free. Another way, as proposed by our county Integrated Waste Management Authority, is an outright ban on single-use plastic bags in large stores. If San Francisco and Long Beach can do this, so can San Luis Obispo County.
Consider the statistics: According to William Worrell, manager of our county’s Integrated Waste Management Authority, consumers in our county use about 130 million plastic bags annually, and Californians use about 19 billion.
The annual usage of bags in the nation is estimated at 100 billion; worldwide estimates range from 500 billion to 1 trillion.
The ocean becomes a final resting place for much of this detritus; in the northern subtropical Pacific, there is a vast accumulation of junk that has been termed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and dubbed “the world’s largest landfill.”
According to many marine biologists, plastic bags in the ocean appear to mimic jellyfish — an important food source for some marine species.
Numerous marine animals and sea birds have been killed as a result of ingesting plastic bags, as well as an assortment of other plastic debris. Though no one knows how many marine and other animal deaths occur each year as a result of ingesting plastic bags, figures range from 100,000 to 1 million.
The problem is neither you nor the plastic bag — it is all of us. We’re used to tossing out whatever it is we don’t want, a lifestyle that is out of sync with the world in which we live. A typical American throws away about 4.5 pounds of trash per day that must be disposed of, a gargantuan task by itself.
We should agree with environmentalist Lester Brown, who wrote recently in “World on the Edge,” that “the throwaway economy that has evolved over the last half-century is an aberration that is now itself headed for the junk heap of history.” Another part of the problem is our growing population, especially when combined with our affluence. For perspective, I was born in California in 1941, when the state’s population was just under 7 million; today there are nearly 10 million people in Los Angeles County alone and more than 37 million in the state. These numbers complicate any problem you can name.
In turn, the U.S. population has now passed 312 million and is growing at a rate of one person every 13 seconds. As for the world population, it reached 6 billion in 1999 and will reach 7 billion later this year — an additional billion people added in only 11 years. We must change how we live on this finite planet because it is all we have. Starting locally with a bag ordinance would inspire everyone to act toward a solution to this global problem.
Gary L. Peters is a retired California State University geography professor. He has authored or co-authored 10 books, including texts on California and population geography and two books on wines. He has lived in San Luis Obispo County since 2003. While not affiliated with a political party, Peters offers a liberal perspective on issues.