Plastic bags of doom

It looks like fresh attention is being paid to the fact that plastic bags are among the most troublesome and pernicious forms of waste. How bad? Well, “continents of floating garbage” for a start. Think that’s an exaggeration? Well, “One plastic patch is estimated to weigh over 3 million tons and covers an area twice the size of Texas.” And how much ecological damage does it do?

The United Nations Environment Program says plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals every year.

That almost certainly dwarfs any damage to cetacean populations that could be caused by, to take a far more famous issue, Japan’s “scientific” whaling program. Not to mention the yet-unknown effects that all of this plastic is likely having on fish, algae, plankton, etc. Could the collapsing fishing stocks be attributable not just to the direct action of over-fishing, but also to poisoning and choking by gargantuan amounts of plastic?

Since the plastic tends to gather in isolated and rarely trafficked patches of sea, so deep into international waters that no country even crosses path with it, much less has responsibility for it. As yet, there is no world body with either the political motivation, technology, or infrastructure necessary for embarking on what would easily be the largest cleanup project in history, and it is difficult to imagine any realistic way that such a huge mass could be removed.

Still, as hopeless as the cleanup is, at least the world is beginning to work to phase out the manufacture and use of such plastic bag, which will at least slow down the rate at which the problem worsens. An announcement earlier today that China-the world’s largest and most polluting nation-will be drastically cutting plastic bag usage is an important step.

As in most countries that have attempted to tackle the problems causes by plastic bag waste, China will primarily be relying not on a total ban on their use, but a requirement that stores no longer give them out free with purchases, but charge extra for them. It is hoped that imposing a surcharge on the bags will encourage customers to bring their own environmentally friendly reusable bags when they go shopping, as has been the case in other countries.

While, as far as I know, Bangladesh is the only country which has as yet completely banned the distribution of plastic bags, a number of countries have imposed bag surcharges similar to the one proposed for China. Taiwan introduced a charge equivalent to something like 5-7 US cents per bag, Singapore has a similar system, and Ireland-an island about twice the size of Taiwan, and formerly a consumer of over 1.2 BILLION plastic bags per year-has imposed a 15 cents/bag fee that is credited with reducing their use by 90%. Other countries in Europe, most likely starting with Ireland’s next-door neighbor of Britain, will likely follow.

Some other countries, such as Japan, have been relying on voluntary conservation to combat plastic bag proliferation. Although some Japanese supermarkets have taken the bold step of simply not having bags at all, they are still given away for free in most businesses. However, convenience stores recently began offering a discount of several yen to customers who refuse a plastic bag. Although the clerk is officially supposed to ask customers if they need a bag, in my experience they almost never do, and simply give them out habitually.

Although I have yet to hear a serious proposal to either ban or charge for plastic bags in the heavy consuming United States, I have recently noticed two well-meant but minor initiatives. The first was at the New York University campus bookstore and computer stores, where if you refuse a plastic bag they give you a token you throw into one of four or five bins near the exit, each one representing a charity. Each token pledges a 5 cents donation to that charity. The other was a sign at my local A&P Supermarket, promising a discount of a few cents for customers who bring their own bags. Unfortunately, this will certainly prove as ineffectual as the convenience store initiative in Japan, particularly since I only saw the sign by the exit, in an area not even visible from the cash register/bagging area.

Will these various measures have a major effect on the plastic bag problem? The answer to that thankfully seems to be a yes-but a qualified yes. It is still to early to know how much ecological damage the vast amounts of plastic already in the ocean have caused, or will cause in the future. And despite movement towards curbing the future growth of the “continents of floating garbage,” we may never be able to get rid of them.

For more information on the oceanic plastics quandary, have a look at this short documentary, filmed on location in the Pacific Ocean.

11 thoughts on “Plastic bags of doom”

  1. If you had read the back pages of the Nikkei today (as I am sure we all do) you would know that Suginami-ku will be introducing a measure that requires all relevant stores to either charge for plastic bags or come up with some other plan that will reduce usage by at least 60%. It has apparently already passed and will be in force starting in the spring.

    Also, when I worked at a Stop & Shop in CT like 5 years ago we were actually encouraged to give plastic in favor of paper because the paper was more expensive, and the eco-bags were just for snobby assholes. I guess that has changed a little since then.

    At the cheapo supermarket Big A where I shop, plastic bags are a whopping 10 yen each. I bring the cloth.

    I have noticed a change in the attitude toward bagging stuff at convenience stores. It seems like people are at least open to the idea of not giving me a bag when I am just getting a newspaper or one soda, whereas before they would never break protocol unless I specifically demanded they not give me a bag. Not sure whether this is because of increased consciousness, the decline of regimented convenience store workers, or simply the fact that the Koreans and Chinese working there have a different attitude about bagging.

  2. Also, I am sure that the places on earth that the West pays the least attention to will eventually be our downfall, such as the double Texas sized plastic bag monsters (that is just staggering I dont even know how to react… its like humanity is a bunch of little Pee Wee hermans, laughing two short chuckles before adding one more to the collection… its like the armageddon meteor has already hit us and we didnt even know it!

    Also in today’s Nikkei – a short essay from the Cultural Affairs Agency Commissioner about the ideas of Yukichi Fukuzawa. He is credited with believing that the Western world was the only people on earth to achieve a true “Civilization” and that Japan should imitate it as it is the only model available to progress as a race. The commissioner concluded his little intro to Fukuzawa Thought by suggesting that Japan needs to apply his teachings to the Japan of a new era.

    But look at the world the West has created. We sit here lazing about with screens in our faces while the world literally fills up with trash. The double texas trash island should be the top issue in the presidential election… just sickening

  3. When someone figures out a way to make money from all that plastic waiting to be recycled, they’ll start to go after it.

    Or perhaps plastic is the new coral.

  4. Update as of today – NY City council Passes Bill for Recycling of Plastic Bags
    But under the new bill, which had a surprising amount of support from retailers and plastic-bag manufacturers, stores that give the bags to customers must provide recycling bins for the bags in a prominent place in the store. The legislation applies to stores of 5,000 square feet or larger, as well as all branches of chains with more than five locations in the city.

    Shoppers will be invited to deposit plastic shopping bags as well as other stretchy plastic materials, such as dry-cleaning bags. Stiff plastic bags with cardboard bottoms are out, since they are considered reusable.

    Consumers can drop off bags from any store, not just the one where the bin is located. “It would be terrible if you had to have your Duane Reade pile and your D’Agostino pile,” Ms. Quinn explained. “That would be a nightmare.”

    The Department of Sanitation, which picks up plastic bottles, cans and newspapers, will not collect the bags. Stores will have to contract to have them removed, most likely by companies that will recycle them into new plastic bags or buy them to make into other products, such as weatherproof decking.

    Stores will also have to ensure that the bags they distribute have printed messages urging customers to return them to stores.
    “We already have a lot of members who have taken up this cause,” said Patricia Brodhagen, vice president of public affairs for the Alliance. ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Food Emporium and others already collect bags voluntarily. Whole Foods, which is not a member, promotes reusable bags and offers small discounts for returned bags.

    The “no” votes in the Council came from two of the three Republicans, Councilmen Vincent M. Ignizio of Staten Island and Dennis P. Gallagher of Queens.

    Other cities, including San Francisco, have banned plastic bags altogether. But Ms. Quinn said that could increase the use of paper bags, which give off methane as they decompose, another environmental hazard.

    She said her office had received anxious calls from New Yorkers asking if they could continue to use the bags as garbage bags or to pick up after their dogs. Absolutely, she said: Recycling will not work by itself, and other tactics like using canvas bags are just as important.

    An unlikely supporter was Progressive Bag Affiliates, a trade group that represents most American makers of plastic bags.

    “New York has really become a pioneer,” said Dave Vermillion, a spokesman for the group, which includes companies that make recycled bags.

  5. I’m happy to see this blog post and so many more like it lately…. this issue seems to really be on a rising tide of awareness all of a sudden. There’s a great article in the hawaiian paper Molokai Times that lists plastics as a toxin and a threat to the ocean, the artist Jeffrey Scott Holland is shutting down his international egg hunt because the eggs were made of plastic, and Australia is looking at getting rid of plastic shopping bags completely by year’s end (thanks to Peter Garrett of the rock band Midnight Oil!)

  6. If we can dredge the oceans free of fish, we should be able to do something about plastic bags.

  7. I had the same thought as Richardson: I think it was Buckminster Fuller who said that “Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”

    Also, new islands means new real estate!

  8. It’s my understanding that the richest woman in the world, who is Chinese and the richest person in Asia, got started by figuring out that all the container ships taking goods to the U.S. were coming back empty, and the U.S. had (has) a trash problem. She got contracts to take the trash to China, where it was sorted and paper (and I suppose plastics, metals, etc.) were recycled. That map up there could be a treasure map! Except I get sea sick…

  9. “We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.”

    Not really that simple. They have at present no value, since they are discarded. If someone can give them value, well, great – like they did with all that pesky rock oil that kept oozing out of the ground in the Middle East. In other words, we can’t just start rounding this muck up and hoping someone somewhere might want it, we need to find a way to make its retrieval as commercially viable as over-fishing tuna. Then they will become valuable and we won’t allow them to disperse. But until that day, they have no ‘value’ unless you ascribe to the labour theory of value.

    Similarly, the amount of gold held in suspension in seawater dwarfs that of land-based deposits, but the extraction processes are not yet commercially viable for serious sea-mining. So if something as valuable as gold is still sitting out there due to lack of financial incentive to get it, plastic will take even longer. The best approach is perhaps a moral one through propaganda – encourage, say, Microsoft to improve its corporate image by going out and rounding this stuff up. And then Bill Gates can make his own version of L’il Lisa Slurry or the Burns Killall Net or whatever it was called….

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