Cassandre Adelson, Ava Bordage, Jordan Nunley, Kaitlyn Parker
A recent study found that 92% of Americans over the age of 6 test positive for plastic-based chemicals in their bodies (Jackson, 2015). This shocking statistic is due to the tremendous amount of plastic litter introduced into the natural environment from humans improperly disposing of their plastic materials.
Often, a plastic bag is thrown haphazardly into waste bins, some plucked from these bins and carried by gusts of air, pushing them down the street. They get sucked into storm drains, float towards waterways, and enter streams, rivers, and lakes. These waterways are often tributaries into the ocean, and plastic bags flow downstream until released into the marine environment where they begin to break down. Dangerous toxins begin to leach out of the plastic, finding their way into sea creatures and washing up on the shores (Harris, 2010). Humans consume fish that have plastic accumulated in their system, and there is not a possible way to remove this plastic from their system before they enter the food chain, so plastic becomes pervasive in modern life (Harvey & Watts, 2018). Not only are plastics damaging marine ecosystems and marine organisms, but they are affecting humans as well. Soon there will be no environment, no animal, and no person left untouched by the harmful effects of plastics.
Single-use plastics are everyday objects that are only used for only an average of 12 minutes before they are either thrown away or recycled (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). Plastic bags are one of the most widely used single-use plastics in the world, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), United States consumers use more than 380 billion single-use plastic bags and sacks annually (Conserving Now, 2016). In 2015, the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup rated plastic bags as sixth and plastic grocery bags as 8th in the top ten most frequent litter items in the world (Wagner, 2017). Since 2010, 192 coastal countries produced an estimated 275 million metric tons of plastic, which is nearly equivalent to the weight of all humans on Earth. Of this plastic produced, 4.5 to 12.7 million metric tons entered the marine environment (Law et al., 2018). Not only do single-use plastics pose a significant threat to the wellbeing of marine animals but the threat is constant due to the overload of plastic litter entering the oceans. Without intervention, there will be a significant change to oceans and a loss of aquatic organisms.
Plastic bags enter the marine environment when consumers do not properly dispose of their bags.Of all debris found in the ocean, plastic bags are one of the most substantial contributors to marine waste (Clean Water Action, n.d.). Thousands of plastic bags are made in just one minute, resulting in up to one trillion plastic bags produced in just one year (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). A typical American family consumes about 1,500 of these plastic bags annually, yet only about 1% of people recycle their plastic bags (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.; RUTAN Poly Industries, 2014). Even people who do not live close to the ocean contribute to marine pollution. About 80% of plastic found in the ocean originates from freshwater tributaries such as rivers, lakes, and streams, meaning that proximity to the ocean has little impact on how much plastic actually enters the marine environment (Ivleva, Wiesheu, & Niessner, 2017). The improper disposal of plastic bags inevitably results in the bags and their chemicals seeping into the marine environment, making plastic bags an immense threat to the health of the oceans (RUTAN Poly Industries, 2014).
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “every bit of plastic ever created still exists today” (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). Due to this, plastic introduced into the marine environment accumulates at a faster rate than it can decompose. Plastics may take hundreds to thousands of years to break down due to the different environments they are exposed to (Law et al., 2018). Plastic requires oxygen and UV rays from sunlight in order to decompose, but even in studies where plastics have exposure to ideal conditions, they only lost 2% of their surface area over 40 weeks (O’Brine & Thompson, 2010). The inconsistencies in plastic bag composition, color, and additional factors they experience in the marine environment make it difficult to identify a true rate at which plastic bags decompose, however, some research says it can take 20 to even 1,000 years for a plastic bag to fully break apart in typical ocean conditions (Ocean Crusaders, 2012). Plastics bags are often 90% composed of synthetic polymers, or man-made chemicals, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a purposefully durable plastic that even when exposed to ideal biodegradative conditions will break down into smaller particles called “microplastics” (Perelman, 2016; Harris, 2010; Biber, Thompson, & Foggo, 2018). Microplastics are plastic particles less than 5 millimeters to 50 micrometers in size, about the same range as a gravel stone to a grain of sand. Plastic never decomposes entirely, but instead plastic particles break down even further into nanoplastics ranging from sizes on the same microscopic level as viruses (O’Brine & Thompson, 2010; Alimi et al., 2017). Since 2014, an estimated 93 to 236 million metric tons of microplastic particles exist in the ocean (Sebille et al., 2015). From plastic bag to nanoparticle, plastic bags impact the marine environment at all stages of their degradation process.
Plastic bags not only pollute the marine environment, but they harm the organisms that live there. Plastic bags are one of the leading causes of entanglement, internal injury, and death of marine life. Their impact can even go beyond the marine environment and hit uncomfortably close to home (Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). According to the Ocean Health Index, entanglement affects all known species of sea turtles, about half of all marine mammals and one-fifth of sea birds (Thompson, 2013). Plastic bags may also resemble jellyfish as they float, enticing the sea turtles that typically hunt them. More than 50% of sea turtles found dead had ingested plastic bags, had choked on them, or had plastic accumulated in their stomachs, meaning nutritious food could not be properly digested (American Disposal Service, n.d.). Microplastics may even be small enough to be ingested by tiny organisms like plankton (Perelman, 2016). Plankton is at the bottom of the food chain and is part of the diet of larger organisms such as fish and whales, so plankton conveys additional plastic contamination to these larger animals, even people (American Disposal Services, n.d.).
Plastic is categorized as a persistent organic pollutant (POP) due to its ability to stay present in the environment for an extended period (Van et al., 2012). Chemicals including flame retardants, plasticizers, antioxidants, UV stabilizers, and pigments are just a few of the chemicals added to plastic in the production process. Additionally, some chemicals form unintentionally during the production process of plastic (Gallo et al., 2018; Ocean Health Index, n.d.; Barry, 2009; Bernstein, 2009). Both additives and chemical by-products of plastic productions are toxic. These chemicals are endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDC) and carcinogens, meaning that they have the potential to cause reproductive issues and cancer (Ocean Health Index, n.d.). Plastic releases the synthetic chemicals that it is composed of as it breaks down in the environment; the result is that these chemicals have a severe impact on organisms in the marine environment, even at low concentrations like that of nanoplastics (Gallo et al., 2018).
Another issue that arises with toxicity is the nature of plastic to adsorb other polluting chemicals in the environment, meaning that plastic poses as a transport medium for other foreign pollutants such as pesticides (DDT), oil, and heavy metals (Gallo et al., 2018; Ocean Health Index, n.d.). The presence of plastic pollution increases the concentrations of these harmful chemicals within the marine environment, which means that materials that would typically sink in water to float around on buoyant plastics in the marine environment. With this transportation medium, heavy metals have a higher chance of entering the ecosystem and harming organisms (Holmes, Turner, & Thompson, 2012).
The best way to tackle this problem is to implement a nationwide ban on plastic bags to mitigate the harmful impact on the marine environment. In doing so, it will lead companies down the path of switching to biodegradable and reusable materials. Plastic bag bans are already present in several towns and cities across the United States, so introducing a complete ban of plastic bags across the nation would be an effective next step. Single-use plastic bags are the main target of plastic pollution due to their low rate of recyclability.
Plastic bags are non-essential plastic items since there are other options available that are reusable and biodegradable, making it feasible for a ban to take place without sacrificing convenience. Local governments have the power to implement a plastic bag ban to protect natural resources, like the marine environment, so areas as small as town communities can take the first steps toward a plastic bag-free environment. As of 2017, the United States has 271 municipalities that have taken measures to reduce the use of plastic bags, with 95% of these being plastic bag bans (Wagner, 2017). Several communities, even entire states, have successfully implemented these bans; San Francisco, California was the first U.S. state to implement a plastic bag ban in 2007 (Scientific American, 2019). Then in 2014, California passed a statewide ban, and the amount of plastic bags distributed in the state went from 19 billion annually to zero (Phillips, 2017).
The efficacy of plastic bag bans is difficult to gauge seeing how the bans have only been in place for a short amount of time. However, a study done in California proves how helpful a ban can be; The studied showed that in as little as 8 years after the implementation of the plastic bag ban, there was an 89% decrease of plastic in storm drain systems, a 60% decrease in creeks and rivers, and a 59% decrease in city streets and neighborhoods (Scientific American, 2019). Countries around the globe that implemented a plastic bag ban have also shown a successful reduction in plastic bag litter. A study done by the U.K. Centre for Environment showed an average 30% drop in marine plastic litter around Norway, Germany, Northern France, and Ireland (Chow, 2018). Additionally, the United Nations reports that five years after a single-use plastic bags ban were in effect, Italy saw a 55% reduction of plastic bag pollution along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (Legambiente ONLUS, 2017). The success of the plastic bag ban in various places worldwide shows a direct correlation between banning plastic bags and reducing the amount that ends up in the ocean.
Plastic bag bans should exist on a national level to avoid the dilemma of city versus state regarding plastic bag policies. Many states have taken action by voting new laws to barre cities within their states from banning plastic bags. Thus far, Arizona, Missouri, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Indiana, and Iowa have all passed new laws preventing municipalities within their states from banning plastic bags (Rodd, 2018). Cities within those states that implement a plastic bag ban could face legal action and financial consequences such as budget cuts. Recently in Arizona, the city of Bisbee repealed a plastic bag ordinance established in 2011 after the state threatened to cut the city’s budget by 2 million dollars (Rodd, 2018). The state of Arizona passed the law against plastic bag regulation five years after Bisbee voted to pass the plastic bag ordinance, however, the ordinance was not grandfathered which led to a long-lasting court battle between the state and the city of Bisbee. At the end, the supreme court of Arizona determined that Bisbee had violated state law by banning plastic bags (Gardiner, 2017). In Florida the divide between city and state also posed as a problem. In 2017, Coral Gables was the first city in Florida to place a ban on single-use plastic bags, and Gainesville followed suit (Florida Bag Legislation, n.d.). These cities were able to implement a ban on single-use plastic bags because state law allows cities of a population less 100,000 people to place regulation on plastic bags (Defilipi, n.d.). However, for cities like Miami that have much larger populations, they are barred from taking any action regarding plastic waste. In response, the population is took action: a petition to ban plastic bags in Florida on Change.org received thousands of signatures and brought awareness to Florida communities (Defilipi, n.d.). Despite state law, communities should be allowed to invoke their Constitutional rights and voice their opinions instead of being overruled by the state due to pre-existing and outdated legislature.
Paper bags used to be the norm in America before the introduction of plastic bags in the 1980’s (Parker, 2019). Paper bags are now a prominent choice in areas where plastic bag bans are in place. However, organizations like the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) and the “Bag The Ban” are campaigning against plastic bag bans (Goonan, 2016). Their approach is that plastic bags are more environmentally friendly than paper bags because plastic uses 70% less energy and 96% less water to manufacture. Though this may be true, paper comes from trees, and the production process uses water – both of which are renewable energy sources (Langlois, 2018). “Bag the Ban” claims that no oil is involved in the making of plastic bags in America, and that natural gas is used instead, however the Center for Biological Diversity found that 12 million barrels of oil are used to produce plastic bags each year which prove that plastic bag manufacturing negatively affects the environment as well (Bag the Ban n.d.; Center for Biological Diversity, n.d.). Both paper bags and plastic bags have negative effects on the environment, yet plastic bags, in addition to affecting the terrestrial environment, pose a threat to marine environments and marine animals.
Another claim made by institutions opposing plastic bag bans is that plastic bag bans affect small businesses financially (Bag the Ban, n.d.). In an interview conducted by Wany News in New York brought to light some concerns small business owners have regarding the plastic bag ban. One small business owner commented that paper bags cost double the price of plastic bags which increases overall expenses and takes money away from their business revenue. In order to compensate for this, customers will have to pay for those expensive paper bags which may decrease the likelihood of customers choosing to shop at small business locations (Menard, 2019). What this business owner might not have been aware of is that taxpayers were already paying for the usage of plastic bags through taxes, and once the ban is implemented, that is more money in the taxpayer’s pocket. In California, before the statewide ban, the estimated price for cleaning up plastic bag waste cost taxpayers about 428 million dollars, however, plastic bags have indirect financial consequences as well (Board, 2017). Single-use plastics, being a significant component of storm drain clogs, increases flood risks; a matter of public safety that can accumulate substantial costs due to property damage in cities (Travis, 2016). A study conducted in Portland Oregon surveyed the materials found in storm drains and discovered that plastic bags account for 20% of litter that clog storm drains (Travis 2016). In addition to storm drain clogging, plastic can negatively affect sewage treatment and control, which could negatively impact the environment and public health (Travis, 2016). When considering all these factors, is financially beneficial for taxpayers and the marine ecosystem to ban plastic bags.
If current societal habits continue in regards to plastic bag consumption, the marine environment and the American people will suffer the consequences. By the year 2050, by weight, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean (New Plastics Economy, 2017). The impact of plastic bag pollution on this scale will pose an even larger threat than it does currently, increasing not only the risk of harming marine life, but also harming humans just the same. In order to illicit real change there is only one solution: a plastic bag ban. Once put in effect, the amount of plastic bag litter produced annually will reduce considerably. This reduction will consequently decrease the harmful impacts plastic has on the marine environment, and intrinsically, the American people. Society has the opportunity to make change and vote in favor of a nationwide ban, so spread the word and ban the bags now, otherwise, the plastic pollution plaguing marine ecosystems will only worsen, and we will suffer the consequences.
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