In 1977 the plastic bag was introduced in grocery stores. From that point it is estimated that worldwide plastic bag consumption reaches an astounding 4-5 trillion bags annually (in 2002) – that’s almost 2 million every minute.
Plastic bag production, use, and disposal have many negative impacts on the future of a sustainable world:
Social: Most bags – even if reused once or twice – end up in the landfill or as litter. Plastic bags are typically designed to be used for the few minutes when transporting goods to our homes. As litter, plastic bags infiltrate our community, gardens, and freeways which make our cities ugly and dirty. As a result of the litter, health problems can also occur, as plastic bags have been known to carry diseases through different areas.
Environmental: If a plastic bag ends up in a landfill, it will take hundreds of years to break down. When plastics break down, they don’t biodegrade; they photodegrade – this means the materials break down to smaller fragments which readily soak up toxins. This photochemical process contaminates soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion. In 2006 the UN released a study that found that every square mile of the ocean has about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in it.
Economic: In California an estimated $34 million to $107 million is spent each year to manage plastic bag litter in the state. Based on the Californians Against Waste website, these bags also have a negative impact on the 40 billion dollar-based ocean economy.
When we look at California geographically, it’s easy to see that the state is directly connected with the Pacific Ocean and waterways (including wetlands, rivers, and lakes). Considering this connection, imagine the impact of 13 million plastic bags that have been handed out annually in the state and which have ended up in waterways and landfills. Despite efforts to expand recycling programs, the California recycling rate for plastic bags has only reached 5%. Additionally, California spends $25 million a year to landfill discarded plastic bags.
Driven to action by pollution in streets and waterways the California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed a law in 2014 that banned the use of plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores. This law is the nation’s first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores. Senate Bill 270 was set to take effect on July 2015 for large grocery stores and supermarkets, while convenience stores and pharmacies have been set to take effect in 2016. The law does not apply to bags used for fruits, vegetables, or meats; nor to shopping bags used at other retailers. The law allows grocers to charge a fee of at least $0.10 for using paper bags.
The plastic bag ban is gaining momentum outside of California, becoming topics of consideration in states and cities like Chicago, New York, coastal North Carolina, Portland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico. Globally, some counties and cities are adopting the idea: Modbury (England), Mexico City (Mexico), Mumbai (India), Bangladesh, and many cities in Brazil, including Sao Paulo!
This revolution is “recycling” people’s behavior and mind. Due in part to this changed global state of mind, Globo, the biggest Brazilian TV network, contacted me last October to shoot a segment focusing on how I (a Brazilian living in America) live without the use of plastic bags. Their interview attempted to get at the personal side of environmental policy shifts—following me as I shopped at my local grocer and giving the shop owner an opportunity to contribute her own experience after the plastic bag ban.
It was a great opportunity to show a little about my eco-conscious shopping routine. I demonstrated the reusable bags that fit inside my purse and which I carry with me all the time. I also explained that I don’t need to use (the non-banned) plastic bags for vegetables and fruits—I wash produce anyway, so they are fine in my reusable bag without the need for an additional plastic bag.
When Globo asked about my thoughts on plastic bags my response was simple: When I have a question like that I always think, “How would my grandmother or even my mother have transported her purchased goods?” I remember that my parents used to take me to the farmers’ market every Sunday and we would take a shopping cart (which is a huge trend now) and a reusable bag! Why did we change that? I like to use my reusable bag, because I know that I’m contributing a little bit to my community (avoiding littering); for the environment (not creating waste that will end up going to the landfill, nor will I potentially pollute waterways); and finally, I’m helping my region by saving state funds that have been allotted to cleaning parks, beaches, and oceans which have been polluted by a steady stream of plastic bag waste.
Plus, you can be fashionable and responsible by using a reusable bag!
Written by Denise Braun, LEED AP BD+C, Associate, Gaia