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Bag the bag for a healthier environment

What do the national flag of Ireland and the national flower of South Africa have in common? Strangely enough, the answer is plastic bags.Plastic bag litter is such a common scene in both countries that each has become the subject of jokes. Sure those millimeter thin, lightweight sacks seem innocent enough on their own, but when you look at the vast number produced in the world, 500 billion each year, you quickly realize that they are anything but that. But let’s back up and talk about how plastic bags are made so that the impacts of 500 billion of them will be more obvious. We know that there are no plastic trees out there, although a look at the bag-littered trees surrounding the landfill might lead a person to believe otherwise.So where does plastic come from then? Plastic starts its long life as either crude oil, natural gas or another petrochemical.The petrochemical is then transformed into chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules, which are called polymers. The polymers are then heated, shaped and cooled creating plastic, which is formed into its usable shape, in this case a bag. You probably guessed where this column would lead within the first sentence describing the birth of plastic. That is fossil fuels. They are nonrenewable, highly toxic and create greenhouse gases.And our plastic bag habit has resulted in the use of about 12 barrels of oil per minute just to make an item that is used for a few moments. Enough said on that subject. Plastic bags not only have the great qualities of being lightweight and inexpensive to create, they also last forever. That is great for time capsules, but any other use makes that pretty unnecessary. Plastics do not biodegrade, instead they photodegrade, meaning that sunlight breaks them into smaller and smaller pieces. Oh wait, make that smaller and smaller toxic pieces. Those toxic little bits get so little bitty that they can seep into our soil, lakes, rivers and oceans. Don’t worry though; we don’t have to wait for that long process to take place in order to spread the plastic bags around without much effort on our part. The lightweight bags are easily blown into bushes. As the wind blows it tears in the shrubbery turning into a shredded mess. Unlucky cows, deer and other foragers come along to, well, forage and swallow the undesirable plastic along with the desirable shrub.The bags are well known among wildlife biologists for choking animals, or in an even more agonizing death, have blocked their intestines making it impossible to digest food. This scene has been repeated even more often at sea. Turtles regularly mistake the bags for their favorite food – jellyfish – and follow the same path as the foragers I just mentioned. Upon conducting an autopsy on a whale found dead off the coast of Australia four years ago, scientists found that the whale’s stomach was packed full of plastic bags, packaging, garbage bags and more and yet not a drop of real food. And this whale was not the first – other marine mammals, as well as birds, have followed the same fate. This will inevitably bring the idea of switching to paper bags to mind for many people. After all, they utilize a renewable resource, trees, and are not lightweight enough to blow around. Unfortunately paper bags are argued to use more energy at their birth and take up more space in the landfill at their death than plastic bags. Of course, recycling of bags is always an option, but that doesn’t address these problems. Regardless, Summit Recycling Project is investigating the option, but with the low quality of plastic used, coupled with the storage issues associated with them (they can’t be exposed to wind, rain, snow or sun) it is an expensive item to recycle with low return.Therefore priority remains on reducing and reusing. This is always the priority, but with plastic bags it is even more important. This leads us to the subject of reusable tote bags. I can honestly say that I have never met a person that has tried using canvas tote bags that has reverted to plastic. Some may say that they struggle to remember to bring their bags to the store, but once it is habit, it is habit, much like anything else. A good reusable bag can get in countless uses in its lifetime. And they pay for themselves through the 5- to 10-cent credit you get on each bag at checkout. So take an easy step that will make a positive impact – switch to reusable bags and bag the plastic bag – for good. Holly Kingsley is the Education Coordinator for Summit Recycling Project. Let’s Talk Trash is a monthly column dedicated to exploring local and global waste issues. Individuals are invited to submit contributions to Summit Recycling Project at recycle@colorado.net.


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