More action necessary towards banning plastic bags
Walk down almost any street in Tucson and you’re bound to see plastic grocery bags in the sewer drains, stuck in bushes and cactuses. Our windy environment makes for a storm of plastic bags being picked up and blown around, which makes them an eyesore and a threat to our desert ecosystem. Before the problem gets more out of hand, the city ought to place a tax or ban on plastic bags.
More than one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually, according to Reuseit.com, but only 1 percent of them are recycled.
“If you’ve never looked at this issue before, you could be astounded and overwhelmed,” said Leif Abrell, a scientist who works in the Arizona Laboratory for Emerging Contaminants at the UA. “It’s insane how much material is out there, and there are different ways that this is a problem for our environment.”
Abrell measures trace amounts of organic chemicals found in the environment, particularly through soil and water samples. Through his research, he has found that plastics seep their way into ecosystems and are a potential threat to the natural balance. The plastic itself, however, isn’t the only problem. As it breaks down, it releases chemicals, like flame retardants, antimicrobials and plasticizers, into the environment. This is damaging to the soil, water, plants and animals that consume them.
Jon Chorover, the head of the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, is a proponent of eliminating the plastic bags.
“Plastic waste is a major landfill component and extensive plastic use in everyday materials means that [plastic] make its way into other environmental compartments,” he said.
A large portion of wasted plastic bags end up in the ocean, where they are the second-most common type of waste found after cigarette butts; every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating on its surface, according to Reuseit.com.
“What’s astounding to me is that on some beaches around the world, you can scoop up a cup of sand and a large proportion of the grains are not actually sand,” said Abrell. “They’re pieces of plastic that are broken down to the same sized pieces as the grains of sand.”
An obvious solution to reducing the negative effects of plastic bags may be to recycle them, but even if they are taken to recycling plants or landfills, they may cause waste issues. The light and flexible materials can be pulled into machinery parts, clogging the machine and causing maintenance problems.
Disposing of them in a landfill is not conducive either because plastics take roughly 1,000 years to decompose, and if they’re taken to the Tucson landfill, the process could take even longer, Abrell said.
“The Tucson landfill is deficient in moisture, so the breakdown process lasts a lot longer than landfills in the Northeast or West where there’s more moisture,” Abrell said.
Many U.S. cities in California, North Carolina, Washington and Oregon have recognized these problems and implemented bans or taxes on the bags. Washington, D.C.’s disposable bag fee, enacted in 2010, has reduced plastic bag usage from 22.5 million to just 3 million bags monthly.
In nearby Bisbee, Ariz., starting on Earth Day 2014, retail locations will ban plastic bags and charge a minimum of a nickel per paper bag — persuading shoppers to bring their own.
Places such as England, New Delhi and South Australia are also eliminating plastic bags through bans and taxes. When China enacted a ban on plastic bags, it saved 1.6 million tons of petroleum that would have been used for production, according to Worldwatch reports.
In March, the Tucson City Council passed an ordinance to regulate and reduce the nearly 182 million plastic bags distributed each year in metropolitan Tucson. Under Ordinance No. 11056, Tucson retailers must count the number of plastic bags distributed per customer, weigh the amount of bags recycled, and report their findings to the city.
Because there is no “goal” for the mandate as far as a percentage reduction or a specific time frame to do so, there have been no clear results since the ordinance was enacted. However, the ordinance has brought the issue into the spotlight, and now it’s time to take concrete action.
Tucson’s issues with plastic bags, coupled with educated people who have the power to make a difference in the near future, make the city a perfect candidate to enact a plastic bag ban or tax. We have the opportunity to really make a difference in something that impacts every consumer, and it starts with recognizing the problem and utilizing the solution: Eliminate the plastic bags. Tucson has started the conversation — now it’s time to take action.
Kalli Ricka Wolf is a journalism junior. Follow her @kalli3wolf.