Conservation-The Plastic Bag By: Kevin Williams, Grundy County Conservation Director
May 24, 2013
I know I’m not alone in the following observation. A trip down the highway doesn’t have to be very long before you notice a gray or white plastic shopping bag caught in a tree or shrub in the road ditch or nearby field edge. There they are billowing in the breeze. Certainly unsightly, wouldn’t you agree? But when you take a look at the numbers and costs economically and environmentally - alarming. These plastic shopping bags, often used once & thrown away, use up natural resources, consume energy to manufacture, create litter, endanger wildlife, add to landfill waste, impact human health and take forever to disappear. I know. I have some folks who won’t read any farther convinced that Kevin is going to take the rest of his newscolumn wordcount spewing a bunch of “environmental whacko” figures. Stay with me please. I honestly could write the rest on only the argument that they are an eyesore as litter and for that reason we should do more to stop their use. Can we all agree that a tree looks a lot prettier without them? Sadly, once the leaves all come out they disappear from view. The old Out of Sight, Out of Mind. As I think about it, maybe it is good that we are subjected to seeing a small percentage of these bags tangled in the trees if only to serve the purpose of reminding us that so much needless plastic is ending up as litter in our environment. Notice I said a small percentage are in the trees. Far more are near the ground weighted by a plastic pop bottle or used “disposable” diaper. If you take nothing else from this article, would you please take this: as litter, plastic bags do not biodegrade, instead they photodegrade. They break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits of the same plastic bag contaminating soil, waterways, and entering the food chain when animals accidentally ingest it. And get this - since water keeps plastic cool and algae blocks ultraviolet rays, every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into Stoehr Fishing Area, for instance, is still out there somewhere. And with the greater use we experience at Grundy County Lake I fear the amount of plastic that is accumulating there. An estimated 8 billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps and sacks enter the waste stream every year in the US, putting an unnecessary burden on our diminishing landfill space and causing air pollution if incinerated. We no longer have an active landfill in Grundy County. We have a collection center where many recyclable materials are saved from the landfill. But statistics show that the amount of unrecovered plastic being carried away in the garbage as somebody else’s problem is staggering. Plastic bags will take up to 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill. In fact, nothing completely degrades in modern landfills because of the lack of water, light, oxygen and other important elements that are necessary for the degradation process to be completed. And you know what? Afetr all of this, I am sorry to say that I don’t have the answer to the problem that I have presented here. Only 1 to 3% of plastic bags are recycled. Many bags collected for recycling never get recycled. A growing trend is to ship them to Third world countries like India and China which are rapidly becoming the dumping grounds for the Western world’s glut of recyclables. Rather than being recycled they are cheaply incinerated under more lax environmental laws. I do know that an inventory of the amount of plastic bags entering my family’s house was eye-opening and likely is the same way with most of you. So, stop some of the problem. You have probably all heard it - BYOB or Bring Your Own Bag! I’m not saying it is easy. Personally, when the reusable bags were gathered up and placed in the car to use instead, the biggest problem we encountered was remembering to take them along when we went in the store. And the overwhelming urge to take the plastic bags rather than trek back out to the car to retrieve them. But I’m going to try harder. I hope you will, too.
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