It’s estimated by the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. consumes 100 billion bags per year. While a majority of these bags are recyclable, a 2004 Worldwatch Institute study revealed that as little as 0.6% of U.S. plastic bags actually get recycled. The rest get sent to fill up our already overflowing landfills, with the exclusion of the three percent that end up in the air. The bags that get sent airborne turn into litter, lining the streets and clogging the sewers.
The environmental affects of plastic bags are clear. Besides the conspicuous eyesore that loose bags create, they also slowly and gradually degrade the soils and water, releasing toxins into the areas that birth our food as they decompose over their 1,000+ year lifespan.
Humans aren’t the only ones digesting the residues of plastic. Many of the bags fly through the air or float to the sewers until they end up in oceans, where various different species mistakenly ingest them as food. As reported by PBS (2005), “Plastic debris causes considerable, widespread mortality of marine mammals, birds and turtles through entanglement or ingestion.”
Plastic is of utmost concern for sea turtles. Plastic bags are often indistinguishable from the jellyfish that many species of turtles rely on for food. PBS points out that one of the best ways to help save the lives of these marine creatures is to cut down on the amount of plastic we use. Some places have set out to help people do just this.
In 2002, a bill was passed in Ireland that enacted a tax, which has recently been raised to 22-euro cents, the equivalent of 33 U.S. cents, on plastic bags in stores nationwide. This accounted for an immediate 94% drop in plastic bag usage, which equates to approximately one billion fewer bags consumed annually. The revenue created from the few who choose to pay the tax and continue to use plastic bags is put towards environmental programs in the country, such as clean-up projects.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to enact a ban prohibiting large-scaled grocery stores and chain pharmacies from using non-compostable plastic bags for customers’ purchases. According to the San Francisco Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance, the ban has helped San Francisco cut down on litter and has allowed the city to conserve 430,000 gallons of oil used in making traditional plastic bags. According to Vincent Cobb, founder of Reusablebags.com, between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are consumed annually worldwide. A significant amount of petroleum is needed in creating these plastic bags, thus resulting in the release of a considerable amount greenhouse gas emissions during production.
If all states were to adopt a policy that combined both the policies of Ireland and San Francisco, our world has the potential to be a lot cleaner of a place. If each state were to enact a two year tax (similar to Ireland’s), followed by a comprehensive ban on plastic bags (like being implemented in San Fran.), we could greatly reduce the amount of plastic bags we consume and the negative effects the have on our environment. The initial two year tax would not only help to facilitate and give people time to change their habits before a comprehensive ban, but it would also generate a significant amount of money to be put towards much needed environmental programs.
In just the first year of Ireland’s tax program, the country raised $9.6 million from the plastic bag tax to be put towards environmental programs (Reusuablebag.com, 2010). Pennsylvania alone has a population of almost three times the size of Ireland (4,234,925 vs. 12.4 million people), showing the potential for each state to make quite a considerable amount of money during the process that would be instituted to help residents wean their way off of using plastic bags. The tax followed by a comprehensive ban would also reduce the amount of money currently required to be put towards clean-up programs in order to remove the waste of plastic bags. As quoted in Positively Green: “San Francisco officials estimated that each plastic bag costs taxpayers 17 cents to remove from streets, parks, gutters, storm drains, and the waste stream.” By replacing plastic bags with reusable bags, we could reduce the time and money put towards clean-up programs. These wasted resources could then be utilized for other environmental areas that are currently being neglected due to inadequate funding.
Banning plastic bags would increase the health, asethetics, economy, and environment of our nation as a whole. While the ban that has accounted for 5 million fewer bags per month in San Francisco is currently being considered in numerous other cities (such as Boston, Porteland, and Phoenix), in reality it will probably take quite a bit of time before our nation ever adopts this policy as a whole. In the meantime, do your part in spending the $10-20 or so for reusable bags and eliminate plastic bags from your lifestyle. Other than the small burden of having to remember to use the reusable bags (this will become easy as it becomes a habit), there is really very minimal negative consequences of switching over. You may want to also consider taking some time to lobby your local legislatures about this issue and spread the awareness of the detrimental affects of plastic bags.