COLUMN: From Here and Back Again

Jim Coufal

Banning Plastic Bags – Another View

As Madison County wrestles with whether to ban plastic bags or not, residents have expressed many views, for and against. I find many of those against the ban give trivial, convenience and even self-serving, local reasons; the bags are handy for collecting dog do-do, for lining garbage cans, easier to carry than paper and so on. They overlook the saying, “Think globally and act locally.”

Looking globally, the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas. It consists of human-made debris, largely plastic, including a large portion of plastic bags. There are similar smaller garbage patches in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Off the Bay of Biscay, plastic detritus has been found as deep as 12,000 feet.

Often these oceanic garbage patches are described and even pictured as looking like the open top of a large landfill. There apparently are such areas, but Angelicque White, associate professor at Oregon State University, who has studied the “garbage patch” in depth, warns that “the use of the phrase ‘garbage patch’ is misleading. … It is not visible from space; there are no islands of trash; it is more akin to a diffuse soup of plastic floating in our oceans.”

The plastic in such soup continuously breaks down until it is microscopic plastic (microbeads), which run through the food chain like DDT. The DDT actually adheres to microbeads—double trouble. Scientists are still investigating the effects of such microbes, but have already found crustaceans and other filter feeders suffer reduced reproductive abilities.

In larger forms, scientists find plastics in the oceans are responsible for the death of one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year from ingesting or getting trapped in plastic detritus, including plastic bags. Land animals also suffer, and when they die and decompose, the plastic often remains to move on, consumed by another.

How does this immense global problem connect to us locally? About 80 percent of the debris in the GPGP comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the GPGP, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year. The remaining 20 percent of debris in the GPGP comes from boaters, offshore oil rigs and large cargo ships that dump or loose debris directly into the water. The majority of this debris—about 705,000 tons—is fishing nets. More unusual items, such as computer monitors, footballs and LEGOs come from dropped shipping containers.

A 2017 study conducted by scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Georgia concluded that of the 9.1 billion tons of plastic produced since 1950, close to 7 billion tons are no longer in use. The authors estimate that only 9 percent got recycled over the years, while another 12 percent was incinerated, leaving 5.5 billion tons of plastic waste to litter the oceans or land.

It’s foolish to assume our local use of plastics, including plastic bags, doesn’t contribute to this massive problem.

Besides the particles’ danger to wildlife, on the microscopic level, the floating debris can absorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBsDDT and PAHs. Aside from toxic effects, when ingested, some of these are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected animal. These toxin-containing plastic pieces are also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by fish, which are then eaten by animals up the food chain, including humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic substances.

In a landfill, single-use bags take up to 1,000 years to degrade. According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags. Four out of five grocery bags in the U.S. are now plastic.

Regarding solutions. San Jose, Calif., passed a law making every bag cost 10 cents. People in San Jose stopped using bags by about 90 percent, and the city reported an 89 percent drop in the amount of bag litter in its storm drains. San Jose estimates it is saving $1 million a year by not having to repair municipal recycling equipment that previously got jammed with plastic bags.

What’s more, the city saved landfill and transfer station bag litter control costs estimated at $318,000 a year.

Along with the think globally, act locally example provided by San Jose’s action, the legislation is also an example of—borrowing from Native American thought—thinking ahead seven generations while acting now. Environmental management follows the precautionary or preventive principle that if a threat of serious or irreversible damage to the environment or human health exists, a lack of full scientific knowledge about the situation (and I will add human convenience) should not be allowed to delay containment or remedial steps if the balance of potential costs and benefits justifies enacting them.

In other words, “prevention is better than cure.”

Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is a part-time philosopher and full-time observer of global trends. He can be reached at

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