Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

tags: , , , ,

Stop using plastics — especially those flimsy plastic grocery bags — unless you plan to reuse reuse reuse them.


People ask me if I could do only one thing to preserve the planet, what would it be? I tell them that the best, and easiest way to help save this planet would be to cut down on one’s use of plastics, beginning with those flimsy plastic bags that are given out by supermarkets. If people would only make or purchase several strong canvas bags and reuse them for carrying groceries, they would have taken a big step towards conserving our planet.

But why plastics, specifically? Because plastics are made from petroleum products, primarily oil. In fact, almost 10 percent of U.S. oil consumption — that’s approximately 2 million barrels each day — is used to make plastics. That could power a lot of SUVs!

Equally as bad, plastics are not biodegradable. Plastics do not break down when they are underground, in dumps, in compost piles nor in oceans. And plastic bags often kill endangered animals, such as albatross and sea turtles, after they reach the oceans. Basically, the only way to get rid of plastics is by gathering them up and burning them. So in short, that plastic bag that is stuck in your neighbor’s tree? Well, it could remain there longer than you are alive on this planet. Is that how you wish to be remembered?

But what about recycling plastics? Unfortunately, many people have an optimistic view of this country’s recycling efforts; according to a nationwide online survey, on average, respondents estimated 38% of plastic is recycled. But in reality, less than 6% is recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Everyone knows about our country’s unhealthy reliance on oil and the impact that petroleum use has on climate change,” said Jim Barber, President and CEO, Metabolix, which has developed a brand of fully biodegradable Natural Plastics. “Similarly, people see a lot of plastic waste in the form of litter. But the fact that so many people are unaware that plastic is made from oil and that it will persist in the environment for thousands of years, shows the need for education about the impact of plastic on the environment and the various alternatives made from renewable resources.”

So, in short, to help save Mother Earth, reduce your use of plastics as much as is possible. Make or purchase several canvas bags for carrying groceries. And if you must use plastics, either reuse them (as in the case of plastic refrigerator containers) or use plastics that you know are biodegradable.

Basically: Plastic = Evil

Background

Yahoo Business story.

Comments

  1. #1 Paul Sunstone
    April 26, 2007

    Didn’t New York City recently pass a ban on plastic shopping bags? Anyone know anything about that?

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    April 26, 2007

    no, unfortunately. but i understand that San Francisco did. good for them! now if only we coud get NYC to do so, also.

  3. #3 G. Williams
    April 26, 2007

    My immediate thought was how to find an alternative to plastic trash bags. We could cut down on the amount of wet garbage we have by composting, but we haven’t got a garden to use it on yet. (In about six months that should change.)

  4. #4 "GrrlScientist"
    April 26, 2007

    wrapping non-organics in biodegradable plastic garbage bags, paper bags, or newspaper .. those are my suggestions. but composting organics is the best solution. but i think my readers will have some clever suggestions for non-organic garbage disposal.

  5. #5 S. Donner
    April 26, 2007

    Kudos to SF, and to other cities considering this. But a ban is even more important in tropical developing nations where the ubiquitous cheap thin plastic bags, which usually can only be used once, clog waterways. At least here plastic bags are reusable.

  6. #6 Susannah
    April 26, 2007

    “Basically: Plastic = Evil”

    I have been saying this ever since the 1960s. I think the only people I have convinced have been my children.

    But every little bit counts, I guess.

    (The bits of plastic foisted on me by the packaging companies get used and re-used until they disintegrate. When I had land, I then burned them. Now, they go in the recycling bin.)

  7. #7 Myrmecos
    April 26, 2007

    A pertinent inspirational anthem:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=embc54FYN2g

  8. #8 John
    April 26, 2007

    To G. Williams – An alternative to using plastic trash bags is to bring your groceries home in paper rather than plastic bags, then use the paper bags for your trash.

    By the way, if any readers here live in D.C., consider signing our petition to ban plastic shopping bags in the District.

  9. #9 T. Bruce McNeely
    April 26, 2007

    Hi Grrl Scientist,
    What an effective message this is!
    I took the liberty of forwarding it to my Unitarian Fellowship as a “food for thought’ item. Hope that’s OK with you.
    I’m thinking that a bunch of reusable canvas or string bags would be the way to go.
    I am probably influenced by a trip I took through South Africa about 10 years ago. We drove through miles of veldt without seeing much of humankind except barbed wire fences for livestock. But in all of those fences, there were plastic bags stuck on them. They must have blown for miles before ending up there. I hate to think what archeologists will think of us 1000 years from now.

  10. #10 Richard Simons
    April 27, 2007

    The community of Leaf Rapids in Manitoba banned plastic bags about a month ago (there is only one store in the town which probably helped), a reflection of the pride the inhabitants have even though the population has shrunk dramatically since the mine closed.

  11. #11 Bertram
    April 27, 2007

    Doh!
    That took a LONG time to come over from Old Europe to the US (or was it Canada, according to Susannah ;-)

    BTW, if someone doesn’t like to *ban* plastic, just put a price tag on it! 10 cents per bag for starters; or maybe a quarter.

    Then watch that (plastic) grocery bag reuse take off …

  12. #12 Bob O'H
    April 27, 2007

    Hear hear!

    I use plastic bags for my supermarket shopping, but I make a point of using one until it falls apart: I’m not organised enough to remember to buy a canvas bag when I’m near a shop that sells one. The thing I find worse is when buying other things like books: you end up with lots of small plastic bags that are otherwise useless.

    One bizarre thing here in Finland is that most of the organic produce is wrapped in plastic, whereas the non-organic is loose. I think someone is just being evil with that.

    Bob

  13. #13 Hey
    April 27, 2007

    Karachi Pakistan last month banned plastic grocery bags.
    Now people must bring their own plastic bags or cloth bags.

  14. #14 Polonius
    April 27, 2007

    Maybe I’m missing something, but consider this: the most immediate threat to the environment is atmospheric carbon dioxide. All other things being equal, which is worse: a paper bag that will soon degrade, producing carbon dioxide, or a plastic bag that will not?

    Now, all other things are not equal, and I’m not seriously suggesting plastics as the answer to atmospheric carbon. I suspect the real problem with plastics lies in the by-products of the energy used in the manufacturing process. To minimise that damage, once a plastic bag has been made, it should be reused until it falls apart, which will take a lot longer than with paper.

    When a plastic bag has outlived its usefulness, it should be recycled or, failing that, preserved intact, locking up the embedded carbon until the current crisis is under control (which will take, at least, decades). Carbon locked up in waste plastic is definitely not the problem, and Susannah’s suggestion of burning it is definitely not the answer.

  15. #15 David Harmon
    April 27, 2007

    Unfortunately, not only has NYC not banned plastic bags, my local Key Foods doesn’t even seem to have paper bags. (They do deliver… in cardboard boxes.) And when I bring one of my canvas bags (gotten in Cambridge during the late 80s) the cashier gets confused,…

    I am, however, seriously considering going over to paperless statements. I’ve recently been weeding through 15 years of personal files, and all the phone, bank, and credit-card statements alone probably massed as much as a decent sapling. With other periodicals and catalogs, that would be a small but sturdy tree. (I’ve been sending both bags of shreddings and stacks of paper to the recycle bin.)

  16. #16 David Harmon
    April 27, 2007

    Polonius: Are you also up for the local (NYC) storm? I got woken up by the distant but brilliant flashes of lightning. The thunder is weak and late, these seem tobe a couple of miles away. Looking at Weather Underground, I see the storm is moving up the coast toward us.

    Obligatory environmental comment: I think steam reduction has major promise for recycling organic waste, and I bet it can handle small amounts of plastic (back to petroleum, pretty much). Personally, at this point I’m more worried about heavy-metal and chloro-organic pollution. We should genengineer a few bacteria and fungi to work on those….

  17. #17 speedwell
    April 27, 2007

    This is the best in-your-face way to recycle plastic bags, making something even more useful and functional out of them:

    http://www.csudh.edu/dearhabermas/crocheting_bags.pdf

  18. #18 "GrrlScientist"
    April 27, 2007

    myrmecos; superb and humorous video! thanks! i wish i had found it first!

    the reason i focus on the plastic bag issue instead of carbon dioxide is because it is much harder to convince people to give up their cars than it is to covince them to give up plastic bags. further, giving up plastic grocery bags is a great way to start living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. once a person has started doing that, it is easier to get them to do other environemtnally friendly things.

    and Bruce, it is fine to share my message with others (i hope you attributed me, though!). i hope it helps!

  19. #19 Emily
    April 27, 2007

    I’ve been using canvas bags for a few years now – they work great, are super heavy duty, so you don’t need nearly as many as you’d think (4-5, 6 at absolute most!). And, they’re great cheap *useful* souvaniers!!

  20. #20 Diane in Ohio
    April 27, 2007

    Here’s a great article on Biodegradable Plastic,using cornstarch: http://itotd.com/articles/540/biodegradable-plastic/

  21. #21 Bob
    April 27, 2007

    In fact, almost 10 percent of U.S. oil consumption — that’s approximately 2 million barrels each day — is used to make plastics. That could power a lot of SUVs!

    Equally as bad, plastics are not biodegradable. Plastics do not break down when they are underground…

    That’s terrible! That means the carbon in those bags is being sequestered (enviro-speak) underground when I could be burning it in my SUV and getting it into the atmosphere where it can do some good! This must stop!

    Yours for a warmer world,

    Bob

  22. #22 Dave Eaton
    April 28, 2007

    I wonder if plastic=evil. Throw aways, sure. But in general?

    I was discussing the incredible environmental problems caused by mining metals with a environmental engineer. To the extent that plastic has replaced metal in many products, I wonder how the damage to the enviroment caused by plastic compare to the damage done by metal mining. We are going to use something to make stuff. I can’t imagine my computer being made of wood or metal or stone, or having it biodegrade, for that matter…

    Benefits of any type carry costs. Some just aren’t acceptable or sustainable. But in a society where a)people have a short time horizon and b)people elect leaders who make absurd promises, I fear little will change.

  23. #23 Bob O'H
    April 28, 2007

    By happy coincidence, an article in the Guardian about an English town banning plastic bags. Something to make the other Bob’s heart swell with glee.

    Bob

  24. #24 Library Diva
    April 28, 2007

    I thought you might like to know we’ve made a feedback loop! I looked at your leatherback turtle thing last week and learned about how the turtles confuse plastic bags with jellyfish. There was a link to a website that had a counter of how many plastic bags have been used in the US since the beginning of the year. I put that on my own blog, with a similar plea for people to stop using plastic bags, or at least start bringing their own. Yeah, it does confuse the cashiers, but they will figure it out if enough people start doing it.

    I’ll close the loop by putting a link to that website, with the counter. It is http://www.resuseablebags.com. They also sell tote bags and things, but they have that great counter.

  25. #25 Diane in Ohio
    April 28, 2007

    Running the numbers – that a look here, scroll down to see the paperbags used every hour at grocery stores(Depicts 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags) & right below that plastics bags(Depicts 60,000 plastic bags, the number used in the US every five seconds). VERY SCARY!!!!!

    http://www.chrisjordan.com/current_set2.php?id=7

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!