Addressing the nuisance of plastic bags
September 20, 2016
On the long list of recyclable materials and their future usefulness, the lowly plastic bag is at the bottom. While paper products can become paper again, and glass can become glass, plastic bags are so unstable as to be useful for almost nothing.
The one thing in their favor? They are incredibly cheap to produce.
A recent article in The Atlantic cited a 2008 study conducted by the UK Environment Agency, which showed that cloth tote bags would have to be used over 300 times to account for the carbon footprint of producing them. Plastic bags, on the other hand, are so cheaply and easily produced that they only need to be used a second time — say, to line a trash can — to make up for their carbon footprint.
During a sit-down interview with The Park Record, Recycle Utah leadership said the study opens up a valuable discussion about what it means to go green, and the commitment required to do so.
"It's a Catch-22 with a lot of environmental issues," said Education Director Mary Closser. "Here you have the plastic bag, which is a nuisance, which doesn't biodegrade, which gets in our oceans, versus the tote, which perhaps has a higher carbon footprint.
"How committed are we, really? You could ask that question with transportation, too. Someone buys a Prius, and that's awesome, but is that now an excuse to never take the bus or ride their bikes?"
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It is not enough to simply have the cloth tote, Closser said. You have to commit to using it every time.
"Changing our habits, changing behaviors, is huge," she said.
Closser was joined during the interview by Outreach and Communications Director Molly Brooks and Executive Director Insa Riepen. None were willing to accept the idea that plastic bags, if used more than once, were an acceptable alternative to cloth totes.
"Plastic bags may take less energy to produce, but they're also never going away," Brooks said.
Riepen said it's about setting a higher standard for ourselves as a community.
"I think we need to aim a little higher," she said. "I will not be caught with a plastic bag in my hands, ever, unless I pick one up off the road. I think we should all say it is our expectation in Summit County, Utah, where we all talk about environmentalism, that we follow through. It is not acceptable to go to any store and expect to walk out with a plastic bag.
"We can't be thinking of ourselves as green or environmentally aware unless we follow through. Not carrying a plastic bag should be our expectation."
Riepen expanded on Brooks' point, saying plastic bags that end up in landfills often get loose and fly away, and all plastic that goes unrecycled eventually ends up in our bodies of water.
"There are studies being done in all our oceans, and now all five Great Lakes," she said. "And most of the plastic they are finding comes from plastic bags."
Plastic bags are very unstable, Closser added, which is a big part of why they are such a nuisance even for recycle centers to deal with.
"It photodegrades," she said. "The sun will break it down, but it will never biodegrade."
They break down into smaller and smaller particles, Riepen said, but plastic bags are never entirely gone. Recycle Utah accepts plastic bags (they cannot be mixed in with other recyclables). They are sent to Rocky Mountain Recycling, where Riepen said they are typically used as a byproduct for things like concrete, to lighten the material. They accept them, she said, but they would love it if they never saw another one.
"We need to stir things up," she said. "In a state that sells itself on its five National Parks, more than any other state, in a state where tourism keeps us going, no plastic bags is our expectation.
"We are asking for culture change. A change of hearts and minds and a change in actions."
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