BY ALYSSA FISHER
Thousands of people shuffle in and out of Publix Supermarket each day. Cooper City High School junior Louis Bremser estimates that hundreds of them go through his lane during a regular six-hour shift bagging groceries in the Countryside Shops. The sound of crinkling plastic throughout the store might seem innocuous, but as Bremser adds another brown plastic bag to his customer’s shopping cart, there’s no telling where it will end up. Dubbed by the Guinness Book Of World Records as “the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world,” the ultra thin bags have become a leading source of pollution worldwide.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, American shoppers use more than 380 billion plastic bags a year. The single-use product then litters the world’s beaches, clogs sewers, contributes to floods in developing countries and kills countless wildlife species.
The enormous demand for plastic bags also ties into the surging global demand for oil. Plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene, a byproduct of oil and natural gas. In the United States alone, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil are used annually to make plastic bags. After they were brought to the United States from Sweden in the mid-sixties by ExxonMobil, The Film and Bag Federation reports that plastic bags quickly became a part of our daily routine. Introduced to grocery stores in 1976, plastic bags can now be found everywhere, from the bottom of the ocean to mountain peaks.
Despite their negatives, the plastic bag is a prime example of an easy, reliable product that people use without thought. It’s waterproof, inexpensive to produce and can hold 1,000 times its own weight. But they are nearly impossible to recycle. According to Rolling Stone, many plastic bags are thinner than a strand of hair, causing them to clog up recycling equipment. Less than 4% are successfully recycled, though allowing them to break down naturally is not an option.
“A plastic bag can take over 1,000 years to degrade – and even then it doesn’t biodegrade, it photodegrades, meaning it breaks down into small pieces of plastic that float around essentially forever,” Resuseit.com PR & Community Manager Natalie Slater said.
For this reason, many countries have instituted rules to curtail the use of plastic bags. Some, like China, have issued outright bans. Others, like many European countries, charge for plastic shopping bags. In the U.S., San Francisco and Oakland, California banned the bags and promote reusable and compostable sacks. Elsewhere in the state, supermarkets are required to take back and recycle the bags. Similar take-back and recycle initiatives are under consideration in New York, New Jersey and Maryland.
While there is no ban in Florida, there have been efforts to reduce the hazard. In the midst of shopping carts overflowing with shopping bags, Cooper City resident Patty Kerr proved that people do use reusable cloth bags while grocery shopping.
“I started using them a few years ago,” Kerr said of the three beige Publix tote bags in her cart. “They are just better for the environment.”
Publix started selling the cloth bags about five years ago. While they give out hundreds of thousands of plastic bags a day, the popularity of the reusable sacks continues to grow.
“I would say one out of every four customers use the reusable bags,” Countryside Shop Publix Manager Daniel Smith said.
Environmental and Marine Science teacher Jessica Watters, a known sea turtle fanatic, uses these cloth bags, as well.
“Plastic bags are so bad for the environment,” the SITE sponsor said. “I keep cloth bags in my car so I don’t forget to use them.”
SITE, or Students Improving the Environment, held a plastic bag drive at CCHS last year where they gave out cloth bags in exchange for plastic bags.
“If people are aware, they will try to reduce their use,” Watters said.
When it comes to school, plastic bags are a common site, especially at lunch. According to Slater, each child who brings a typical brown bag lunch to school generates about 67 pounds of waste per year just in paper bags, plastic baggies, plastic utensils and pre-packaged beverages like bottled water or juice boxes.
According to the New York Times, schools have been adopting environmentally friendly policies for ecological and budget reasons. Many of the schools are pushing waste-free lunches, where everything must be either compostable or reusable, in an effort to reduce garbage and the cost of hauling it away.
“Multiply 67 pounds by the number of students in your school alone and that is a ton of needless waste from disposables that could be eliminated by switching to a waste-free lunch,” Slater said.
Both Watters and Slater agree that education is the key to fueling the plastic bag movement.
“It would be a great impact on the environment,” Watters said of banning plastic bags at CCHS. “But a better move for the school would be to inform the students and provide recycle bins for plastic products.”
Since plastic bags are difficult to recycle and do not decompose, some companies are altering their plastic products to go green. For instance, the Ziploc Evolve Sandwich and Storage Bags are made with 25 percent less plastic than regular Ziploc brand bags of equivalent size, which makes them easier to recycle when they are properly disposed of. By adding plastic products like the Ziploc Evolve to recycle bins found at local Publix stores, plastic bags and other plastic products can be taken to a materials recovery facility. Not only can customers drop off any brand grocery paper bag or plastic shopping bag for recycling, but also they can recycle plastic sleeves from dry cleaning and newspapers. According to Publix.com, Publix’s companywide recycling rate is 46 percent. In 2010, they recycled 8,500 tons of low-density polyethylene and mixed plastic. This recycling helped save approximately 729,000 cubic yards of landfill space and resulted in saving the equivalent to more than 2.5 million barrels of oil.
Ziploc is committed to landfill diversion, or offset the amount of Ziploc products produced every year by making sure recyclable materials actually get recycled instead of just thrown away. They work with RecycleBank, a company that rewards people for the positive environmental actions they take, and participating cities and waste haulers to reward citizens for what they recycle at home. The more you recycle, the more RecycleBank points you can earn to use toward coupons for things such as Ziploc Brand products and gift cards. Ziploc.com explains that by 2013, the company plans to be diverting well over 100 million pounds of waste from the country’s landfills, the same amount they manufacture in Ziploc Brand products every year.
Cloth bags and trash bins made for plastic waste are not the only option to reduce the harmful effects of plastic. Reuseit.com sells reusable alternatives to almost every disposable item you can imagine, for instance paper towels, plastic bottles, drinking straws, shopping bags – even diapers.
“Reuseit.com has a fairly large audience,” Slater said. “We’ve served over 260,000 customers and have helped them to eliminate nearly 1 billion disposables since we first went into business in 2003. Our reusable shopping bags are still strong sellers, but water bottles and lunch bags and food containers are gaining in popularity.”
Slater doesn’t believe plastic bags are going anywhere anytime soon.
“Plastic bags are a great invention; they have tons of uses, she said. “People will always need and want plastic bags, even if it’s just to line their trashcans. What I hope is that we learn as a society to be more mindful about how many plastic bags we take, and that we’re sure to reuse the ones we do take.”
Watters says that there won’t be change until there are alternatives as easy as the plastic bag.
“I use reusable containers, most of which are recyclable,” Watters said. “Even though they are plastic, you can still reuse them. But they are not as quick to use like a Ziploc bag.”
While they have become more environmentally sound, Ziploc bags are still not a great product to use as frequently as people currently do. Slater found her own alternative to the Ziploc bag.
“ For packing snacks and sandwiches, I like the nylon snack and sandwich bags we carry, especially the Lunchskins,” Slater said, who packs a waste-free lunch for her son every day since his school recently went zero-waste. “And instead of large Ziploc bags for storing and freezing food, I use safe, non-leaching plastic containers, like Nalgene containers. I even use those nylon bags when I travel instead of using Ziploc.”
The two environmental educators know that the solution to the reduction of plastic bags lie in people’s ability to change their habits and reduce their use.
“Just the education alone would be invaluable,” Slater said. Plastic bags are a significant environmental problem for sure, but more than their impact on the environment, they’re a symbol of consumer consumption out of control. People mindlessly accept plastic bags every day because they’re perceived to be free, therefore worthless. When, in reality, they cost the stores money that gets built into the cost of goods. And, of course, we know the impact they have on the environment. If schools were to adopt zero waste policies, they wouldn’t just be making a direct impact on the natural environment; they would be educating kids and teens about consumption, and how to be more thoughtful about the things they consume.”