We all use disposable plastic in our daily lives. It’s cheap, strong, light and easy to mold and produce. It’s basically the perfect material, right? We often get so caught up in the low cost and high accessibility that plastic provides that we forget about the harms that it can pose to our ecosystem.
I was reminded of this during a marine debris cleanup effort of coastal Arctic beaches in Alaska. We were in an extremely isolated area with no nearby villages, and yet we found tons of plastic. As a nation, we set these supposedly pristine coastlines aside for their scenic beauty and natural values, and witnessing this pollution helped open my eyes to a global epidemic that is threatening our marine environment. Single-use plastic bags represent a disproportionately high amount of the pollution we encountered, but countering this source of the marine debris problem is also remarkably attainable.
Globally, many municipalities have either banned single-use plastic bags or instituted a fee for their use, with positive results including a major decrease in plastic bag usage and pollution alike. In the United States, many major cities such as Seattle and Anchorage and multiple states including California and New York have enacted plastic bag bans, and many others have instituted fees. Additionally, the European Union recently passed legislation banning the use of single-use plastic bags. Washington state lawmakers recently considered similar legislation.
Following Seattle’s ban on single-use plastic bags in 2012, a study by Seattle Public Utilities found that the number of bags in household garbage decreased by almost 50%. Seattle’s population grew by 10% during the data collection period. Additionally, the amount of single-use plastic bags in commercial and self-haul waste streams decreased by 78%. IKEA’s 5-cent fee saw storewide plastic bag use decline by 92%. This data suggests that fees are effective, and outright bans are even more so.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the United States throws out 100 billion one-use bags annually. Much of this becomes litter. Unlike most materials that biodegrade relatively quickly, plastics photodegrade. Through this process that takes hundreds of years, bags break down into minuscule particles, never fully disappearing. These tiny fragments are called microplastics.
Microplastics have the potential to cause considerable harm to our planet’s ecological health, and every bag that becomes litter contributes to this. This is especially prevalent in the marine ecosystem, where plastic can outnumber plankton by a factor of over six to one. Plastic particles often block the digestive tracts of marine mammals and seabirds, resulting in starvation. Entire bags have been found in the stomachs of starved whales and other marine mammals, evidently taking up room that should have been available for food and giving the animals the illusion of being full.
Additionally, microplastics adsorb significant quantities of toxic chemicals that have runoff into oceans or have been dumped there. Many of these agricultural chemicals are banned in the United States but are still sold and used overseas. Once contaminated, these microplastics are frequently ingested by lower trophic level consumers. As toxins progress up the food chain, they can become biomagnified, harming higher level consumers. This stress compounds other marine issues such as overfishing, changes in marine ecosystems from climate shifts, and ocean acidification.
Single-use plastic bags are posing a great threat to our planet, and combating this threat won’t be easy. The Methow Valley is small, but we could be part of a growing global movement. This movement needs your support. Spread the word, contact your representatives, support bag fees or bans, use reusable bags whenever possible, and keep your throwaway plastic bag and bottle use to a minimum. Let’s help ensure that the places we love stay healthy and beautiful.
For his senior project, Liberty Bell High School student Sam Neitlich worked on providing the community with information about the ecological effect of plastic bags, with the goal of reducing their consumption in the Methow Valley. This article is part of that effort.