Introduced to the American public in the 1970s by ExxonMobil, plastic bags were not well received by consumers at first, who preferred the familiar, sturdy paper bags. It was not until the 1980s, after businesses realized that plastic bags were "simply much cheaper for stores to purchase than paper bags, [and were] also waterproof and stronger than paper bags," that plastic bags became the norm. Their light weight and convenience made them acceptable and even popular among shoppers.
By 1985, 75 percent of American grocery stores carried plastic bags. In 2011, the estimated number of plastic bags used each year in the United States was around 102 billion (Rolling Stone) and still less than 1 percent are recycled.
As the use of plastic bags increased, concerns about their impact grew among environmentalists. Besides being made from an unsustainable byproduct of oil and natural gas — as any plastic — plastic bags are found flying around, polluting streets and waterways, where they become a threat to wildlife. Birds get trapped in them and "marine animals often mistake the plastic bags for food and ingest them leading to starvation, suffocation or drowning."
The cost of using plastic bags has affected communities that must spend time and money on cleanups, and our oceans, which end up being the last destination for the flying bags.
Recycling facilities also feel the impact of plastic bags. Plastic bag removal represents about 25 percent of their labor cost. If the bags are not removed from the processing line, they jam sorting equipment.
The negative effects of using plastic bags have been decisive for many countries to implement policies either banning or imposing fees on plastic bags. Bangladesh, China and Italy are examples of countries that have banned plastic bags altogether. Ireland’s imposition of a 15-cent fee has resulted in a 95-percent reduction in use (Worldwatch).
In the U.S., "the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry group whose members include petro-chemical giants such as ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical," has been strongly investing resources "to overturn bans on plastic bags, cast doubt on legitimate scientific studies and even file lawsuits against anti-bag activists."
Despite steps taken by ACC, a growing number of municipalities have passed measures restricting the use of plastic bags. Washington, D.C. has imposed a 5-cent fee on plastic bags, and in 2016 California confirmed the ban on plastic bags through a referendum. In May 2017, Coral Gables became the first city in Florida to ban plastic bags.
Businesses also are joining in the effort. IKEA stores, for example, only offer customers one option: reusable bags — available for a fee. And just last year Adidas "removed approximately 70 million plastic bags from 14,000 Adidas stores across 91 countries" as part of their Brand Sustainability project.
Grocery stores such as Target and Lucky’s Market implemented incentive programs for shoppers to bring in their own reusable bags. Target refunds 5 cents per reusable bag, while Lucky’s Market (LuckysMarket.com/west-melbourne-florida/) took the incentive a little further and created a program, called Bag for Change, to help raise funds for local nonprofit organizations. At checkout, shoppers who bring their own reusable bags have the option to either receive a 10-cent refund per bag or donate a 10-cent wooden chip per bag to one of the three nonprofit organizations featured in the store for the quarter.
Recycle Brevard was fortunate to be one of the nonprofits selected for the program in the quarter that began May 21. So next time you shop at Lucky’s, remember to bring your reusable bags and please consider donating your wooden dimes to Recycle Brevard.
No matter which way it’s done, reducing the number of plastic bags that circulate in our community has become crucial to preventing ocean pollution and littering as well as protecting our wildlife.
While we don’t have legislation determining the fate of plastic bags in our area, we still can make a difference by bringing our own bags when we shop, requesting our favorite stores to provide alternative bags and asking stores to create incentive programs. It might sound like too little, but every step taken in the right direction is one step closer to a plastic-bag-free environment.
Email Marcia Booth at Marcia@3RsAndBeyond.org.