Posts Tagged ‘litter’

By Stefanie Herweck

They drift in the breeze like white, yellow and blue parachutes and look almost lovely, until they are caught and shredded by a fence, tangled in a tree, or stretched wet and filthy over a drain grate.  They are plastic bags, and they have become a part of the scenery in the Rio Grande Valley, accumulating everywhere, even in rural and natural areas far away from the nearest stores.

Plastic bags have become such an everpresent eyesore that citizens are increasingly willing to trade their small convenience for bag-free streets, sidewalks, and parks.  Dozens of U.S. cities have banned single-use plastic bags or imposed fees for them.  Our own Valley communities of Brownsville and South Padre Island have been at the forefront of the effort to stop the plastic bag blight in Texas, with each passing an ordinance that charges consumers a fee for their use.

These ordinances are gaining traction in part because plastic bag litter is so visible and so unsightly.  Discarded bags blowing around set back efforts to keep our cities clean, and they trash our pristine natural areas.  But plastic bags also have negative impacts that we don’t see—impacts that are far more threatening to the environment and human health.

Every year countless animals die from encounters with plastic bags.  They become entangled in the bags, like the raptor that I witnessed trying desperately to disentangle its talons on a South Padre Island beach a few years ago.  Animals also ingest the bags.  One of the Valley’s premier species, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, can mistake plastic bags floating on the tide for jellyfish and eat them, causing intestinal blockage and even death.

And millions upon millions of bags are floating out there.   They drift on the currents, where exposure to sunlight makes them brittle, causing them to crumble into smaller and smaller pieces.  The plastic does not break down into its component elements; it just fragments into more and more pieces of plastic that are smaller and smaller.  These plastic bits float just below the surface of the water and collect in high concentrations in the mid-ocean gyres, where currents spiral together and the world’s plastic waste accumulates.

This plastic soup is made more poisonous because plastic is oliophilic, meaning that it attracts oil.  Thus it absorbs other oily pollutants that it encounters such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, and motor oil.  When the now highly toxic plastic bag fragments reach a small enough size, they are consumed by zooplankton and filter feeders, and the bag enters the food chain along with the deadly toxins that it absorbed.  Fish eat the plankton, bigger fish in turn eat them, and the plastic and chemicals climb the food chain.  Trace amounts of these chemicals are found in humans, suggesting that we are ultimately consuming the toxin-laden plastics that we so carelessly threw away.

The landfill and the recycling bin are not much more appealing options.   It is costly to get the bags to the landfill.  A study in Austin found that the taxpayers of that city pay $850,000 a year to put plastic bags in landfills and clean them up as litter.  Plastic bags are more likely than other trash to escape from landfills on the wind.  Since the bags do not biodegrade, they remain intact for 500 to 1,000 years, ever threatening to contaminate surrounding lands and streams.

The cost to recycle plastic bags outweighs their value, so often they are not recycled, even when placed in bins set aside for this purpose.  It is estimated that only 1 to 3 percent of plastic bags are recycled, and few new bags have recycled content.

Single-use bags, like all plastic, are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.  Fourteen plastic bags contain enough petroleum to drive a car a mile.  We throw away 380 million of them each year—equivalent to dumping 12 million barrels of oil.  Plastic bags give us the pollution of petrochemicals, but none of the energy.

Plastic bags in a field across from Bicentennial Park in Edinburg

Recognizing the harm that single-use bags bring with them, McAllen is the latest city to propose a bag ban.  The Texas Retailers Association and its members oppose the ban.  This week McAllen City Commissioner Scott Crane announced that McAllen’s ban would be put on hold for 90 days while retailers like HEB and Wal-Mart create a voluntary education program.  Just such an outreach effort took place in Austin in 2008 and 2009, but it fell short of its goals.  So, in March Austin is expected to pass an ordinance to first impose fees for, and then ban outright, single-use plastic bags.

As in Austin, McAllen’s voluntary effort is unlikely to succeed.  In the meantime a delay in banning single-use bags will mean that their pollution continues to pile up.

It’s time to stop thinking of single-use bags, as “disposable.”  The fact is that the plastic bag you carry groceries home in today will outlive you.  Your great-grandchildren won’t be able to see it, but its pollutants will still be in the soil that they walk on and the water that they swim in.  Along with their great-grandmother’s eyes or their great grandfather’s smile, they will inherit the plastics and toxins that we bequeathed them, just so that we wouldn’t have to remember to bring along a reusable bag.


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