Response: why plastics are such a threat to the environment

Paul Bacchi, Opinions Editor

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Last week’s “Concordiensis” featured an article discussing the New York State plastic bag ban that starts in 2020. In this article, the author highlights the political details of the ban – such as the main support and opposition behind the ban and how the ban will affect the economics of small business throughout the state.

The article was well-written, however, I felt it lacked sufficient discussion on the environmental implications of the use of plastic bags and so I thought it would be beneficial to accept the author’s invitation for response articles by highlighting just how bad plastic bags are for our environment.

The author of last week’s article highlights that one of the concerns of the opposition of this ban is economic. State Senator Jim Tedisco ’72 is concerned that a five-cent fee on plastic bags will hurt both consumers and small local businesses.

My issue with this argument is that it does not consider the economics of externalities. That is to say, Tedisco fails to address in his argument the amount of money that plastic bags make the economy lose – in the case of plastic bags, it is due to the environmental damage that their manufacture and disposal (or lack thereof) causes.

Some argue that externalities are difficult to measure and are therefore a poor basis for an argument, but I don’t find it unreasonable to connect the costs of cleaning up oil spills with plastic bags, given that crude oil extraction is done for the production of, among other things, plastic bags.

Although even more important than the economic externalities of plastic bag production and pollution is the environmental impact, which extends far beyond oil spills. Plastic bags can be directly linked to a number of pressing environmental issues, such as the reduction in sea bird and turtle numbers.

Losing sea bird and turtle populations may not seem like a serious issue, but they (and many other lesser known, but more important species) represent key cogs in the machine that is the ecosystem. Without them, ecosystems will fall apart, causing unpredictable consequences that will almost certainly lead to a terrible outcome for humanity.

If the rate at which these populations are declining at today continues for much longer, we will quickly reach a point of no return and the resulting issues may very well become impossible to correct.

Perhaps the most staggering figure in relation to plastic bag production is the quantities at which they are made. The United Nations estimates that between one and five trillion plastic bags are produced per year, which makes them the greatest consumer product in the history of humans.

Based on a one billion bag per year estimate, that still comes out to two million bags per day being produced. According to Waste Management, only one percent of bags in the United States get recycled.

So where do the rest of those bags end up? Some get into storm drains and clog municipal drainage systems, some end up getting ripped up by your engine when you drive over them and some end up in rivers that lead to the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans,where they go on to become microplastics that will persist for thousands of years.

In the Pacific Ocean, there is currently a 1.6 million square kilometer garbage island – made up mainly of plastics – known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A large part of the garbage patch is made up of bulk plastic items, like plastic bags or fishing nets, which kill animals when they either ensnare or choke animals that either get too close or try to eat the plastic.

Some plastic products, however, are destined to join the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as pulverized microplastics that kill animals in a much more sinister and cruel way. As animals – often sea birds looking for food to give their children – encounter the microplastics, they eat them. Inside the stomach of the animal, the microplastics become stuck, providing no nutritional value, a feeling of fullness and stopping the animals from making any bowel movements. Tragically, many baby birds suffer this fate when they are fed microplastics by their parents.

As it stands, we have no answer to the problems that microplastics and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch produce. There are many ideas being thrown around in regards to introducing plastic-eating bacteria (which don’t exist yet) into areas to eliminate the microplastics problem and some suggest that large fleets of boats could efficiently skim plastic out of the garbage patch.

But I’m not convinced. In fact, the most expedient and cheapest answer is very clear: stop producing plastic bags. Although, if we’re being honest, I think that just banning plastic bags isn’t enough.

All single-use plastics should be banned, because all of the issues associated with single-use plastic bags that I mentioned in this article apply to all other types of single-use plastics.

New York’s decision makes it the third state, after California and Hawaii, to ban plastic bags. While I think this is a great step for New York, and I hope it signals a shift in public thinking that will lead to other states choosing to ban plastic bags, I still think it’s a bit overdue.

Entire countries have already banned plastic bags, so for only two states in the US to have done so goes to show how far the US has fallen in terms of progressive environmental policy. Regardless, I hold out hope that this ban may spark a wave of anti-plastic sentiment.

In the spirit of the article that this is a response to, I encourage anyone to write further on this issue and share their thoughts and opinions.