Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Plastic Bags

Plastic bags drive me to distraction. Let me re-word that. For a lot of years, I have used them just like everyone else seemed to. Then, I began to see them everywhere, at which point came the distraction. Now they drive me to action.

Jason Schaefer and Chelsea Hummon visited us at the Farm a couple of weeks ago. Jason commented on the island of plastic in the Pacific. I had never heard of it, so I did some internet searching.

An article from the San Francisco Chronicle popped up: "Continent-size toxic stew of plastic trash fouling swath of Pacific Ocean." The so-called "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" is a virtual island of debris floating in the Pacific and is 2 times the size of Texas. (Yes, 2 times the size of Texas.) This floating dump site is mostly plastic, weighing some 3.5 million tons. It has been growing 10-fold every decade since the 1950s. With the prevailing winds and circular current, the island grows. Its location is somewhere between San Francisco and Hawaii where few folks travel. It is "out of sight, out of mind".

I think of all of those plastic bags I see floating on the breeze like tumbleweeds. I am reminded of all those bags I have used without a thought as to where they might wind up. I am filled with disgust.

But my attention to plastic bags goes back further than this most recent research. When we lived in our house on Campbell Drive in Grand Forks, we did our best to pick up litter. Our neighborhood was generally conscious about such things. But there was always litter: a plastic bottle tossed from a passing car, unsecured waste from trash cans tossed about by mischievous wind. We just started picking things up and couldn't stop. In our vigilance, of course, we just couldn't reach it all.

One plastic grocery bag went airborne and landed in the top of a beautiful Crabapple Tree. So what were we going to do about this? I decided this little trash bag was actually offering us a lesson. What was the lesson? I've got it! ...I shall watch it biodegrade.

The Seasons passed. Rain came and filled the bag, which looked like a water balloon. Winds tossed it about, the bag no longer held water, but the persistent little dickens held tight to the Crabapple limbs. We must have watched that bag for 3 years. In that time, it didn't biodegrade much. Then one day it was gone. (I wonder where it went? Did it wind up in that island of trash in the Pacific? Nevermind, it went somewhere.)

In that time, that little plastic grocery bag made me see all the bags that were around me. It seems odd I had not noticed them before. Similar bags were everywhere. I began to be filled with disgust. So what should I do about this?

In my trips to stores, I began to refuse bags if I only had an item or 2. Then my family and I began to carry our own bags. I had gotten canvas bags from the Cloth Bag Company in Atlanta, Georgia. My Living Lightly on the Earth students and I would paint our bags for the journey ahead. It was a meaningful culmination and celebration of our work together. Plus, painting the bags was also playful project. (We need a little more play in our world.)

Melanie added 1 more piece to this puzzle. We seemed to have a plethora of food storage bags in the kitchen. She took up this cause with zest. Once a week, she cleans them and we reuse them. At first, it seemed a bit untidy to me. But their placement on the refrigerator was a long overdue and visible sign we were indeed on a different path.

And along that path, we consciously choose not to purchase foods in excess packaging. We buy in bulk when we can and store food in glass jars. These simple little steps have cut down substantially in our use of plastic.

The Spring 2008 issue of Ecological Home Ideas includes some facts about plastic bags which have added fuel to our quest (the commentary in parentheses is my own):

  • 100 billion plastic bags are consumed annually in the U.S. alone. (We are about 5% of the world's population. People in other countries often want to be like us. Yuk!)

  • Plastic bags decompose in 1000 years, give or take a few hundred years.

  • Plastic bags were introduced in the 1970s.

  • 500 billion to 1 trillion bags are now being used annually worldwide.

  • Plastic bags have been found floating around in the Arctic Circle. (I hope that wasn't my bag!)

  • As much as 10% of the debris washing up on U.S. coastlines consists of plastic bags.

  • Each year, 100,000 marine animals die from ingesting these things.

  • Worldwide concern is arising; Australia, Bangladesh, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, China and India have either banned or issued a levy on them.

I know we have substantially reduced our use of plastic. But I know that we can do more. We will step by step. And we shall have some fun along the way.


Photo above: Cloth bag recently returned from the store with Max the cat along side.

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