Sierra Club: Be A Hero

Be A Hero
Sierra Club

What if you were offered a quick, easy, inexpensive way to clean up litter, lower chemical pollution, and reduce endocrine disruption affecting sexual development and obesity?

What if I told you that this action contributes to a healthier, cleaner future for you and your kids? And that it’s quick, cheap and easy? What is this tiny action? Just bring your own shopping bags wherever you go
and forego those flimsy disposable plastic shopping bags. I can hear huffs and see eyes rolling as some of you quickly reject what you thought would be a heroic, noble gesture.

But wait—let me tell you how this trifling effort on your part can compound many times over for global benefit.

First let’s clarify what is meant by single-use carry-out disposable plastic shopping bags. These are the brown-Smiths/white-Walmart bags made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). These are the ones blowing around town and clogging up waterways. Next, why are so many cities, countries and the entire EU concerned about these bags? Why should we give up the convenience of use-once-and-toss plastic bags? As I said before: waste, cost (both money and environment), and health.

Start with waste and cost: LA County residents (excluding the Laboratory) generate 120-160 tons of trash a month. Also in a month, Los Alamos County grocery shoppers at Smith’s use about 330,000 plastic bags. Because scant few of these are recycled or even used as trash liners, these seemingly insignificant bags amount to two tons a month of pointless trash in our disposal stream. Yes, now we can recycle bags, but better to eliminate the trash in the first place, and conserve resources for what’s important.

Worldwide, we use a million bags per minute. In America, we use 102.1 billion bags/year, consuming 12 million barrels of oil annually as estimated by The Wall Street Journal. If a high percentage of that oil is coming from outside the US, say the Middle East, our use of the disposable bag becomes a national security issue. From another perspective, consider that a car could drive about 11 meters on the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag—you can do a back-of-the napkin calculation on how far you can go on 102.1 billion bags.

On to health. About 50 percent of plastic is used for single-use disposable applications, e.g., the plastic bag. Plastic in general is not inert and leaches chemicals with toxic potential including: PCBs, Phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl esters, tetrabromobisphenol A, bisphenol A, and phthalates. A few things these chemicals cause are breast cancer, endocrine disruption (effecting sexual development), and obesity by being toxic to gut bacteria and mimicking hormones, thus interfering with metabolism.

So here’s how we’re proposing to limit the single-use plastic shopping bag:

First, continue the educational effort. But along with that, let’s do the noble thing and take action to create a bag-free Los Alamos. Here are two alternatives: (1) Ban these single-use disposable plastic bags outright as have so many other communities and countries, or (2) impose a fee on bags—both plastic and paper.

The former is legislative, the latter is a market-driven, pay-as-you-go approach. In imposing a fee on all bags we would allow shoppers who either forget their bags, or simply want the disposable variety, to pay the extra
charge. Overall, the fee works as a monetary incentive to encourage people to bring their own. Does this work? Yes. Ireland imposed a tax on single-use disposable shopping bags (including paper). Even though people still buy trash bags, overall consumption of plastic bags dropped approximately 90 percent, from 1.2 billion to 230 million per year. Their imposed bag fee (19¢ US equivalent) drastically reduced litter and has saved approximately 18 million gallons of oil.

Educated Los Alamos can certainly ban the bag. If the above arguments aren’t compelling enough, ask grade-schoolers what bags do to animals and sea creatures. It’s their future we’re sacrificing in our casual,
habitual grab for single-use plastic bags.