Derek Castiglione: Natural Resource Conservation
Theodore Doucette: Pre-vet
Charles Sclafani: Earth Systems
Located halfway between California and Hawaii, is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is the largest aggregation of plastic in the world. At 1.6 million square kilometers, it is double the size of Texas and made up of over 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing over 80,000 metric tonnes. With data showing the patch is growing exponentially, it is unlikely the plastic is going to go away by itself (The Ocean Cleanup, 2019). Plastic bags pose a threat to biodiversity in the ocean. Over 200 different species are harmed by plastic pollution in the ocean and 100,000 marine animals are killed by plastic bags annually (Richards, 2008). The loss or reduction of these species can lead to a cascading effect that can affect the entire trophic web if not dealt with. If we do not take action regarding plastic pollution, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other garbage patches around the world will continue to grow until our entire oceans are littered with plastic, and by then it will be too late.
Transition. Single-use plastic refers to plastic packaging and plastic bags. In 2013, about 299 million metric tonnes (~660 billion pounds) of plastic were produced worldwide and almost 40% of it was single-use plastic (Green, Blockley, Bas, Carlos, & Richard, 2015, p. #). A major source of single-use plastic pollution is plastic bags, which we will be focusing on for this paper. Plastic has become a problem because once it is created it does not get broken down (Kimmel, 2014). Because of this plastics have reached all corners of the globe due to their convenience and economic viability. Plastics are convenient, cheap to produce, and currently, there is no alternative material that is being made on a wide scale that can completely replace single-use plastic. Plastic pollution will continue to litter the earth unless we find a suitable alternative. Our goal is to reduce the amount of plastic pollution on the earth by replacing plastic bags with reusable hemp bags through legislation.
Since plastics are so cheap and easy to come by, people often do not think twice before purchasing something at a grocery store and using a plastic bag. This results in litter and since the plastic is not recyclable, it often goes to landfills. Politically speaking, there are several areas where single-use plastic has been restricted but most of the US has yet to make this change (Larson, 2014)(NCLS, 2019). This is because it is a cheap and effective material for making plastic bags. With new legislation, a reasonably cheap and more environmentally friendly alternative to single-use plastic may come in the future, but right now effective single-use alternative plastics do not exist. Although it may not be cost-effective to remove plastics from our everyday life, it is necessary for ensuring the health of the earth.
One animal that is being harmed by plastic pollution is whales. All over the world, dead whales are washing up on beaches with large amounts of plastic in their stomach. Just last month a whale washed up on a beach in the Philippines was found to have 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. This kills them by providing a false sense of fullness with no nutritional value, which leads to loss of weight, swimming speed, and with no way to digest or expel the plastic, it accumulates until the whale dies (Victor, 2019). This is not an isolated incident either. Just a few weeks ago, 48 pounds of plastic were found inside a dead sperm whale in Italy and 13 pounds inside a dead whale last year in Indonesia, which included 25 plastic bags (Magra, 2019) (Osborne, 2018).
Banning plastic bags needs to happen sooner rather than later to prevent making matters worse as time goes on. Plastic bags are so common that they are going to need a replacement so it will not hinder people’s daily lives when they are banned. Before plastic bags were invented, people used paper, cloth, or metal containers to carry things (Narasimhan, 2016) People were able to get by without plastic in the past and we can do so in the future. Grocery stores will have to go without giving away single-use bags and/or allow people to purchase a reusable bag with their groceries if shoppers do not bring their own.
Plastic shopping bags are one of the major pieces of single use plastic pollution. There are two major solutions to reducing the amount of plastic bags entering into the ocean. One is a ban on plastic bags, which is already in effect in some parts of the U.S. and in other countries around the world. The other is a plastic tax. This tax of a few cents would be applied per plastic bag. Each solution has a different approach to achieve the same goal; decreasing the number of plastic bags polluting the environment. The idea of banning all plastic bags is fairly new. The first statewide ban on plastic bags was in 2014 in California. The law banned food retailers and pharmacies from providing plastic bags to customers, with other stores like liquor stores and convenience markets given a longer grace period to comply (Scientific American). In San Jose, a ban was put into place in 2012 which decreased plastic bags in storm drains by 89%, rivers by 60%, and residential plastic waste by 59% (NCSL, 2019). Before California, Hawaii introduced a de facto ban on plastic bags and paper bags with less than 40 percent recycled material when the state’s most populous counties began prohibiting non-biodegradable plastic bags. These bans began in 2011, with Honolulu being the last major city to comply in 2015 (National Conference of State Legislatures [NCSL], 4/5/2019). Just this year New York became the third state to ban plastic bags when the state senate passed a bill banning most single use plastic bags at big retailers going into effect in March of 2020. The law also allows individual counties the option to placing a 5 cent fee on paper bags, with the funds going to the states Environmental Protection Fund (NCSL, 2019). The method of achieving the goal for an all out ban is obviously by completely removing the choice of using a plastic bag. A plastic tax aims to achieve that same goal, but instead of removing the option of a plastic bag, it instead aims to discourage the behavior with a financial cost without removing the option all together. A major voice of dissent is over whether the tax is actually effective. Washington D.C. imposed a 5 cent tax on single use plastic bags in 2010. In 2009, D.C. was using 22.5 million plastic bags per month. After the tax went into effect, D.C. is down to just 3 million plastic bags per month (Assadourian, 2010). Other notable cities with plastic bag bans and fees are Boulder, New York City, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles (NCSL, 2019). Even though many people in America are hesitant to even limit their choices on plastic bags, other countries around the world are way ahead of us in terms of reacting to climate change and global pollution by plastics. The Prime Minister of India has said that India will ban all forms of single use plastics by 2022, and other countries like Kenya and Rwanda have already implemented complete bans (Hitchings-Hales, 2018)
Next, we have to make sure that alternative bags are more environmentally friendly than single-use plastic bags. A suitable alternative material to use for reusable bags would be hemp. Hemp is a source of fiber that comes from the plant species Cannabis sativa and production is heavily restricted by drug enforcement laws. As it stands right now, 1 acre of hemp can yield 1300 pounds of fiber on average (National Conference of State Legislatures [NCSL], 2019). To put things in perspective, the USDA estimates that about 769 pounds of cotton can be produced per acre (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2016). That means hemp can be produced in greater quantities faster, and with fewer resources than cotton. It also has a high degree of stiffness and strength while also being lightweight making it perfect for grocery bags (Liu et al., 2017). Our proposal is that government legislation should be put into place banning plastic bags but also requiring that grocery stores have reusable hemp bags on site for sale at all times. This way, even if people forget their bags at home, they are able to purchase one along with their groceries. This will encourage people to remember their bags from home so they do not have to pay an extra couple of dollars every time they go shopping. The biggest obstacle right now for our proposal is the restriction of the production of Cannabis. Another obstacle is enacting legislation to ban plastic bags. Legislation has already been passed in places banning plastic bags but it is not currently legal everywhere to grow the hemp fiber. Many states have reported that if restrictions on growing hemp were removed, agricultural producers would benefit from hemp and its many uses. It is great for crop rotation and less environmentally degrading than other crops (Johnson, 2018). In 2018, 38 states considered legislation related to industrial hemp meaning that production could begin soon. In fact, states such as Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina have already created laws allowing programs for the research and production of hemp (NCSL, 2019).
Now, all we need is an effective replacement for the plastic bags that will not damage the environment and increased hemp production can provide that for us.
One of the biggest problems with getting rid of plastic bags is that they are incredibly convenient and available at every store you go to. Our solution to this problem is to create a policy that bans plastic bags and requires people to use reusable bags (at least until an environmentally friendly version of plastic becomes more readily available). Reusable shopping bags are relatively cheap and so they could be bought at the same time as groceries and this will hopefully encourage people to remember their reusable bag from home whenever they go shopping. This law would have to be enforced but as long as stores comply and no longer use plastic bags then this should be doable especially since states have already put similar bans into place i.e. Hawaii and California. Each year, Americans take home enough plastic bags to circle the earth 1300 times (Larsen, 2014). This will only work if the reusable plastic bags are faithfully used by consumers so they are not just buying a new one every time they go grocery shopping. If in some time, not enough people are bringing their reusable plastic bags to the store, the price of the reusable bags could be raised in order to mitigate the number of people just buying new ones every time they go out.
Our solution of banning plastic bags and mandating that reusable bags be used comes with a resistant audience who will take issue with this new policy. Banning plastic bags would be an inconvenience to many people who would rather just use a plastic bag for free rather than pay for a reusable one. There are also people who may wish to replace regular old petroleum-based plastic bags with bioplastic, petroleum-based biodegradable plastic bags, or even paper bags. These replacements come with issues that make them unsuited for filling the void that normal plastic bags currently fill. There are several types of bags that could replace single-use plastic bags but some are even worse for the environment. Other types of material such as paper, polypropylene, and cotton are used for making reusable bags but they are less environmentally friendly than hemp would be. Polypropylene is a polymer of propylene which is used to create fiber and can be turned into a durable grocery bag. These are standard reusable grocery bags (Hinsley 2016).
According to a study, paper, non-woven polypropylene, and cotton bags would need to be used 4, 14, and 173 times to make up for the waste they produce from production, packaging, transport, and end-of-life waste. This study also took into account how much waste was spared from recycled materials. Each of these bags has some carbon footprint and global warming potential based on the amount of CO2 is produced during the manufacturing and shipping process. While cotton is a biodegradable material, it has a global warming potential more than 10x greater than that of the other materials that were studied due to its high demand for water, pesticides, space (Kimmel, 2014).
Continuing to use petroleum-based plastic bags is irresponsible but we need to ensure we do not start using something that more negatively impacts our environment. The ban would probably have to start off small in order to ease people into this drastic, but necessary transition. Possibly starting off at the city or state level with an eventual nation-wide transition that will hopefully coerce other countries to do the same. People will take issue with this but since reusable shopping bags are very cheap to make and can be made with environmentally friendly materials, such as hemp, it will only cost each consumer presumably less than an average cotton tote bag because the production costs of hemp are so much lower (Kimmel, 2014). The price, however, would have to be government sanctioned to avoid any stores giving them out for free to monopolize customers and allowing people to just use reusable bags as single-use bags.
As for those who would like to see bioplastics and biodegradable plastics come in to play, they are also out of luck. Bioplastics are made out of plant fiber which is able to decompose in compost where they can oxidize and be carbon neutral. However, unless the waste from bioplastic is sent to a composting facility, they are not significantly better at breaking down than regular petroleum based plastic (Gibbens 2018). Biodegradable plastics on the other hand are made of petroleum like normal plastic, but they have different additives that allow them to decompose faster. The problem with these plastics is that when they decompose in landfills they produce methane gas which is many times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. As well as the decomposition of these bioplastics, the production of these also cause more pollutants from the fertilization and pesticides needed in the growing process of the plants. Bioplastics take up much more land space in growing the crops, and produce even more pollutants when they undergo chemical processing to turn them into plastic materials such as plastic bags. However, in the case of the bioplastics themselves, and not the process of producing them, they produce less pollutants over their lifetime compared to normal plastic material (Columbia University). In a study conducted in 2017 showed that when switching from regular plastic to corn-based plastics cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. That being said, the process of growing and converting these crops into plastics is more negative when compared to normal plastic production (Daniel Posen et al.).
Those who would like to see paper bags make a comeback because they are biodegradable fail to realize the environmental cost of creating a paper bag. They require much more time, energy, and resources to produce giving them a larger carbon footprint than plastic or hemp. This leaves the need for reusable bags made out of environmentally friendly materials, like hemp, which takes much less time to grow, do not rely on pesticides, and does not require clear-cutting of forests.
Another argument against our proposal is that banning plastic bags will do nothing to decrease the amount of trash in the ocean, and that there is already so much plastic pollution in the ocean that there is no point to stopping now. Obviously things like this plastic bag ban take time to put into effect and even longer to see results, but people need to understand that we cannot continue to do this forever, and that the sooner we make the change the better off we and the planet and ocean will be. Alongside this ban there needs to be some type of cleanup effort to remove as much of the plastic as we can, and there are already efforts and new technology trying to do just that.
Our solution of banning plastic bags and mandating that reusable bags be used comes with a resistant audience who will take issue with this new policy. Banning plastic bags would be an inconvenience to many people who would rather just use a plastic bag for free rather than pay for a reusable one. There are also people who may wish to replace regular old petroleum-based plastic bags with bioplastic, petroleum-based biodegradable plastic bags, or even paper bags. These replacements come with issues that make them unsuited for filling the void that normal plastic bags currently fill.
Although there are many alternatives to using plastic and there are different ways in which we can limit plastic, it may not always be feasible or environmentally friendly. Yes, banning plastic bags will inconvenience people but it will ultimately save on resources. About 8% of the Earth’s oil is used to produce plastic and the amount of energy (derived from oil) to produce 12 plastic bags is enough to drive a car one mile (Larson 2014). Many cities and countries have already implemented these changes which shows that it is possible to ban plastic bags (Larson 2014).
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