News and ResourcesPlastic Bags: An Unnecessary Trash Source - February 7, 2016
Plastic bags, such as the ones from grocery and retail stores, are everywhere. On the side of the road, in the ocean, in our landfills, homes, offices, and cars, it is almost impossible to ignore how prevalent these lightweight containers have become. Plastic bags replaced paper bags as the carriers of choice for many stores because they are cheaper to make, lighter than paper bags, and can have any number of complex logos printed on them, unlike most paper bags. Plastic bags are synonymous with our single-use and throw away culture. Most people use the bags to hold groceries, clothes, etc. during their shopping trip, then go home and throw the bags away or stuff them into a drawer. Some people use the bags more than once, as trash can liners, but you would be very hard pressed to use a single bag more than one or two times before it rips and becomes unusable. While plastic bags make certain aspects of our lives easier, they have also created a multitude of problems that we must now address.
Plastic bags are one of the most numerous pieces of trash found in our oceans, rivers, beaches, marshes, and forests. Because they are so light weight, they are easily picked up by the wind and can be blown around for miles before landing somewhere miles away. Plastic bags in the oceans are responsible for thousands of animal deaths each year. Sea turtles see the plastic bags floating in the ocean and mistake them for jellyfish, some of their favorite prey. Sea turtles that eat plastic bags can get sick and die from intestinal blockage or an inability to eat their normal food after ingesting a bag. Marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, also accidentally ingest the plastic bags, which again leads to intestinal blockage or other problems. There are over 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris, both visible and invisible to the naked eye, in the ocean. Because most plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to bio-degrade, the amount of plastic in the oceans will continue to rise as we are adding more plastics per year than we can take out.
The plastic bag pollution problem has become a nationwide, if not global, environmental issue of concern. Because of this, lawmakers and activists have worked together to create single-use plastic bag laws and bans across the U.S. and the globe. While the U.S. has yet to have a national plastic bag fee or ban, there are many states that are working towards plastic bag legislation, county by county. California became the first state to enact a ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. While Hawaii does not have a state ban on plastic bags, each county has a ban effectively creating a state wide ban. Maryland currently has a bill coming up for hearing (HB 31 - Community Cleanup and Greening Act of 2016 Environment and Transportation Committee Hearing: February 10 @ 1:00 PM) that bans the use of single-use plastic bags at point of sale. If passed, stores would be required to charge a 10 cent fee for each paper bag and give customers a 5 cent credit for each reusable bag provided by the customer. The fee on paper and reusable bags defrays the additional cost for retailers and supports programs to distribute reusable bags in low-income communities, as well as waterway clean-up efforts. Chestertown and Montgomery County have already passed legislation about plastic bags, imposing a 5 cent fee on plastic bag use for consumers if they choose to use plastic bags over re-usable bags. Ultimately, the goal of these fees, laws, and bans are not to punish consumers or retailers but to create an attitude change to encourage citizens to use more reusable bags or go bag less if possible.
So just what will we do with all these plastic bags for the next thousand years once we are done using them? A research group from the University of Illinois might have found an interesting answer. The group recently discovered a method in which you can convert used plastic bags into useable diesel fuel, which can then be used for a variety of different applications. The new technique is more efficient than previous methods and is even more efficient than petroleum crude oil distillation; the new method converts 80% of the plastic bag material into a useable fuel while typical petroleum crude oil distillation has a 55% conversion rate into fuel. The researchers also treated the oil in a variety of ways to create bio-diesel or ultra-low-sulfur-diesel, which could then be combined with regular diesel to use as fuel. This combination of bio-diesel and regular diesel is more environmentally friendly and is perfectly safe for most diesel engines. Currently the researchers have no plans to apply this method to a larger scale; however, it would not be surprising to see this method used more frequently as the technology becomes more widespread and less expensive.
Plastic bags are a man-made problem that requires a man-made solution. Ultimately, it is up to us to decide whether the convenience of these bags outweighs the myriad of problems they cause and if we even really need them anymore.
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Jackson is the former Educational Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and current graduate student at Clemson University.
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