WHY DOES IT MATTER?
As the world becomes more globalized and industrialized, the complex issues surrounding natural resources have come to the forefront of the world’s collective conscience. A lot of attention is given to short-sighted, albeit pressing, issues such as the availability of and accessibility to crude oil. The fact remains, however, that there are far more pressing, lasting concerns that loom. Global warming and the destruction that’s being done to the ozone layer used to be a distant concern; people generally felt that the point of no return had not been reached yet, and therefore there was still plenty of time left to discover and enact a solution. More than that, there are already major issues resulting from pollution that have begun to affect many people’s daily lives on a grand scale. A great number of people lack access to clean drinking water, for example. Many people also have little to no access to uncontaminated soil in which to grow their own crops. Those people whose livelihood depended on the sea are now in peril as well. While these issues can often times seem overwhelming, there are small changes that can easily be made, many of which will yield a great return of positive effects. One such action would be to ban the use of plastic bags in America and encourage the use of reusable shopping bags, which would result in profound pollution reduction.
PLASTIC BAGS REQUIRE OIL. A LOT OF OIL. NO, SERIOUSLY; A HELL OF A LOT OF OIL!
One reason that plastic bags should be banned is that the production of disposable plastic bags requires large amounts of oil. Plastics are derived from petroleum, which is a byproduct of the refining process in which crude oil is transformed into usable fuels. Thus, not only does the manufacture of plastic bags require the use of oil, but the bags themselves are also made out of crude oil derivatives. However, while many people fail to consider that the plastic bags themselves are made with oil, the truth is that the majority of their staggering oil requirements results from the manufacturing process. For this reason, banning the use of plastic bags can have an enormous positive impact on the environment. This is especially true if new mandates were to be put in place in the largest U.S. cities, which logic dictates would be the heaviest consumers of them. In fact, Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, estimates that a San Francisco ban on plastic bags “will be conserving 430,000 gallons of oil used to make traditional bags – the equivalent of keeping 140,000 cars off the street for a day” (Arnoldy). If such a dramatic improvement could be made just by banning petroleum-based plastic bags in one American city, then the potential for pollution reduction nationwide would be exponential. After all, as Arnoldy’s piece states, “the US uses 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually,” and as jaw-dropping as it may seem, “an estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many bags” (Arnoldy). The rest of the nation’s major cities need to follow San Francisco’s example and ban the use of petroleum-based bags; the action would result in a sharp reduction of oil consumption, therefore also reducing pollution by means of greenhouse gases and other harmful chemicals.
(LOOK AT THAT BEAUTIFUL GREENERY, THOSE MARVELOUS TREES, AND THOSE...PLASTIC BAGS! THEY SURE ARE PRETTY, AREN'T THEY?)
PLASTIC BAGS RARELY GET RECYCLED.
While the consumption of oil that’s needed to manufacture plastic bags is a definitely a huge concern, there is also the issue of what happens with these bags once they reach the end of their life cycle. Far too often, these bags are treated as though they are truly disposable; they are frequently treated as regular trash, and are recycled at very low rates. Once again, looking at San Francisco’s numbers yields some astonishing facts. In Arnoldy’s article, Mr. Blumenfeld also asserts that “after 10 years, the recycling rate for plastic bags in San Francisco – which is pointed to as a model nationwide – is 1 percent, so 99 percent failure" (Arnoldy). Those figures are especially disconcerting when one considers the reputation that the city of San Francisco has for being green and environmentally friendly. If San Francisco and its citizens, who are notorious for prioritizing environmental issues, are this poor at recycling plastic bags, then one can reasonably expect that the rest of the country’s major cities are failing at similar rates, if not worse. These figures simply highlight the pressing need that the rest of the nation has to lessen, if not completely eradicate, its dependence on single-use plastic bags. Just as San Francisco acts as a shining example of environmentalism in the state of California, the state itself plays a similar role when compared to the other states of the union. Even then, despite California’s reputation for being a state that is especially mindful of pollution, it shares another similarity with its flagship green city: on a state level, plastic bags just aren’t being recycled enough. According to Gold's article, CalRecycle, a California state agency, estimates that only five percent of all plastic bags get recycled (Gold). With these kinds of numbers, it’s clear that relying on the recycling process does not make the use of plastic bags sustainable.
(RARE SEA TURTLE MISTAKES PLASTIC BAG FOR JELLYFISH, EATS PLASTIC BAG. PLASTIC BAG RECIPROCATES, EATS HIM BACK.)
(THE GREAT PACIFIC OCEAN...ERRR...THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH)
PLASTIC BAGS END UP AS LITTER, GREATLY HARMING THE OCEANS. TURNS OUT, THE OCEANS AREN'T BUILT TO BE A MAJOR HUMAN GARBAGE BIN. WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT?
The single most important factor that drives the need for a ban on plastic bags is the disastrous results that stem from littering. The United States is a country rich in natural beauty, and it’s a shame to see one of its most precious resources, its varied wildlife and the magnificent habitats in which they live and previously thrived, needlessly decimated by pollution. Unfortunately, plastic and plastic bags form a large contingent of the pollution that litters the natural environment. This is especially true of the marine habitat, which is substantiated by claims made by marine researchers in Vauhini Vara’s article that “plastic doesn't biodegrade, and sometimes floats in the ocean and breaks into tiny bits that sea animals swallow” (Vara). While it’s true that all plastics are at risk to end up in the oceans, the fact of the matter is that disposable plastic bags are by far the largest culprit when it comes to man-made ocean litter. CalRecycle and its studies are particularly damning of plastic bags, stating that “the thin, fly-away plastic bags often end up in rivers, creeks, beaches and parks and are part of a flotsam of plastic waste that compose nearly 80 percent of all marine debris” (Gold). Standing in agreement is Christina Santarpio’s article, which surmises that plastic bags are particularly harmful, as they are a main contributor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (101). The fact of the matter is this: not only are the plastic bags contaminating the oceans and destroying the visual beauty that is American coastlines and beaches, but they are also known to pose a direct threat to the sea turtle population as well as other other marine wildlife (Gold). Thus, it is not just an issue of aesthetics, but rather it is an issue that speaks directly to the safety of the oceans. As is well-known, the oceans are already in a state of peril, with over-fishing and destructive harvesting techniques already threatening biodiversity. The symbiotic balance that mankind maintains with the ocean is a delicate one, and because plastic bags act as a direct threat to that relationship, they should be banned.
("USING PAPER BAGS SUCK TOO THOUGH, RIGHT? RIGHT?!?!?!")
OPPOSING VIEWPOINTS AND COUNTER ARGUMENTS
A common outcry made by plastic bag proponents is the claim that plastic bags shouldn’t be vilified to the extent that they have been, as they are in many ways environmentally superior to using brown paper bags. There is actually a degree of merit to this position, as one Manhattan Beach study, which was described in Santarpio’s article, “acknowledged that more energy is used and wastewater produced in producing and recycling paper bags” (100). There are additional claims from the pro-plastic bag contingency which claim that the manufacture of paper bags actually “emit more greenhouse gases, among other harms,” which likewise holds some merit (Vara). While there are inherent negatives associated with bags made out of each material, the fact remains that plastic bags are still the greater of two evils. Low recycle rates coupled with the effects that plastic bag litter have on the environment outweigh any small advantages they might have over paper bags. Santarpio’s article also details a study which concludes that “because paper bags can hold more, 1000 paper bags would replace 1500 plastic bags according to a conservative estimate” (100). Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the viewpoint that favors the use of plastic bags over paper bags suffers from the either-or fallacy; there are more than two options at play here. The greatest long-term solution to the issues presented by both plastic and paper bags is for people to abandon both and start utilizing reusable bags. Reusable bags have become increasingly popular in recent years, with numerous retailers offering customers small discounts when they bring their own bags. A lot of these same retailers even sell their own reusable shopping bags, which can generally be purchased for about two dollars each. If a customer were to receive a ten cent discount every time that they brought their reusable bag along with them when they shopped, then the bag would pay for itself in twenty visits, thus alleviating any concerns over added cost.
TIME TO WRAP IT UP
Pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases are global concerns that can no longer be put on the backburner. While they used to be distant worries that many just assumed future generations would deal with, the scientific community tells us that these issues now sit on our doorstep; they can no longer be ignored. While it might seem like a small step given the enormity of the problem, banning plastic bags would be a great stepping stone for Americans. It would begin the process of trading in daily conveniences for long-term environmental safety. It would allow them to integrate principles of conservation and reduction into their daily routines, thus preparing them for the more sweeping changes that are on the horizon. Banning plastic bags just makes too much sense not to do it; the positive effects in terms of pollution reduction will be both immediate and long-lasting.
SOURCES AND STUFF
Arnoldy, Ben. "Seldom Recycled, Plastic Grocery Bags Face Bans in S.F." Christian Science Monitor. 29 Mar. 2007: n.p. SIRS Issues Researcher.Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
Gold, Lauren. "Shoppers to Change Habits as Plastic Bag Ban Becomes Law." Pasadena Star - News. 01 Oct. 2014: n.p. SIRS Issues Researcher.Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
Santarpio, Christina Marshall. "Save The Plastic Bags?: How The California Supreme Court Weakened Environmental Impact Report Requirements In An Attempt To Protect The Environment." Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 39.(2012): 97-110. GreenFILE. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
Vara, Vauhini. "Plastic-Bag Defender Becomes a Pariah." Wall Street Journal. 29 Mar. 2011: 29. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.