setembro 05, 2007

The Great Plastic Plague

By Tara Lohan, AlterNet. Posted September 5, 2007.
It turns out 'paper or plastic' is a life or death question for our environment.

They're ubiquitous. They accompany us home each time we shop. They swirl about our oceans, they cling to our trees, they drift down our city sidewalks, they adorn metal fences, they're consumed by animals.

They are an urban tumbleweed, a flag of the consumer era.
Each year across the world some 500 billion plastic bags are used, and only a tiny fraction of them are recycled. Most of them will have a short lifetime with a consumer -- they'll be used for the few minutes it takes to get from the store to home and then they're thrown away.
But what does "away" really mean? Plastic shopping bags can last up to a thousand years in a landfill. In the environment, they break down into tiny, toxic particles that become part of the soil and water. Fortunately, some communities in America have started taking serious action.
Stephanie Barger has seen what washes up on the shores of Southern California. The executive director of Earth Resource Foundation, Barger has helped clean up the sands of Orange County and has helped educate people about the effects of a society that embraces disposability.
For every bag, there's a cost. Environment California reports that plastic bags, and other plastic refuse that end up in the ocean, kill up to one million sea creatures every year, such as birds, whales, seals, sea turtles, and others. And the number of marine mammals that die each year because of eating or being entanglement in plastic is estimated at 100,000 in the North Pacific Ocean alone.

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation learned that "broken, degraded plastic pieces outweigh surface zooplankton in the central North Pacific by a factor of 6-1. That means six pounds of plastic for every single pound of zooplankton." Which means, when birds and sea animals or looking for food -- more often, they are finding plastic.

Our history with plastic bags is short but significant. The Film and Bag Federation, an industry group, reports that plastic sandwich bags were unveiled in 1957 and quickly became a part of our routine, with department stores adopting plastic shopping bags in the late '70s and supermarkets employing them by the early '80s.

Although bags are given out free these days, they are not without their costs. Retailers in the United States spend $4 billion a year on plastic bags, which gets passed on to customers as higher prices.

A global problem
According to Vincent Coob, founder of, about 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year and are causing a global epidemic. The enormous demand for plastic bags ties into the surging global demand for oil -- plastic bags are made from ethylene, a petroleum byproduct. In the United States alone, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil is used annually to make plastic bags that Americans consume.

"Eliminating the use of disposable plastic bags is about more than just the environment," said Barger, "it is about health, sustainability, economics and focusing on what kind of quality of life we want."

A growing list of communities and countries are beginning to rethink their dependence on plastic bags. Already a complete or partial ban on the bags has been approved in Australia, South Africa, parts of India, China, Italy, Bangladesh and Taiwan.

Africa has seen an increasing problem with bags as Environmental News Network reports, "South Africa was once producing 7 billion bags a year; Somaliland residents became so used to them they renamed them "flowers of Hargeisa" after their capital; and Kenya not so long ago churned out about 4,000 tons of polythene bags a month."

In Asia, the bags were banned in 2002 in Bangladesh after they were considered to be major factors in blocking sewers and drains and contributing to the severe flooding that devastated the country in 1988 and 1998.

Taking a different route, in 2002, Ireland imposed a 15-cent tax on bags, which led to a rapid 90 percent reduction in use. Ireland uses the tax to help fund other environmental initiatives. Bags are also taxed in Sweden and Germany, and are set to be banned outright in Paris this year.
In the United States, Californians Against Waste estimate that Americans consume 84 billion plastic bags annually. The United States has been slow out of the gate in addressing the growing problem with plastic, but recently momentum has started for positive change.

Currently 30 rural Alaskan villages and towns have banned plastic bags. And in March the city of San Francisco became the first major municipality to ban the use of plastic bags, and nearby Oakland has followed suit, but not without controversy and litigation from industry groups.

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