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Replacing Plastic with Plastic

Many fall victim to the convenience of plastic bags PHOTO: CULLEN RIDGWAY

Over and over again, we pull another plastic bag off of the shelf, waving it all willy-nilly as thousands of microscopic plastic particles march their way up the food chain, clinging to fat cells in fish and whales and alas—humans.

I can almost feel the little plastic nurdles settle into my stomach lining like a bird settles into a nest as I walk out of Safeway and watch plastic bags swaying from the hands of many shoppers.

Dean Peterson, 55, San Mateo’s retired Director of Environmental health, who was involved in the reusable bag ordinances in San Mateo County said in an email, that the so called “plastic bag ban” is not a ban so much as a regulation to require stores to have reusable bags. This, however, does not bar companies from the use of plastic bags, it just requires that the bag be made of durable material of at least 2.25 millimeters thick.

Ordinances allow these thicker plastic bags based on Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) that feel that these thicker plastic bags might be more reused than paper bags, said Peterson, but still, “EIRs identify both as being unsustainable.”

Whether or not plastic or paper is more reusable is moot as long as the plastic debris floating in the ocean is becoming more common than kelp. The issue is that the continued use of plastic bags is progressing a current dilemma into a catastrophe.

Plastic bags break down over 400 to 1000 years, at which point they are not bio-degraded but degenerated. This means that instead of “disappearing” they simply become microscopic and because they are a petroleum product they bond to oil and fat in the ocean.

This means that the plastic bags are traversing a highway of stomachs from smaller fish to bigger fish. The have been thought to be the cause of some filter-feeding whales death, and they are most likely gathering forces in the stomachs of human beings as well.

So, what else to do, but stop the production? But supply and demand is a fickle creature. As long as consumers purchase plastic, suppliers produce it. Wendy Gutshall, Safeway’s media rep. said in an email, “we carry reusable plastic bags in our stores and we have found customers like to have options.”

A thoughtful pose, for sure, but ultimately an irresponsible motive from a company that claims to understand the impact of plastic on the environment. Furthermore, the customers who persist in purchasing plastic shopping bags are perpetuating a system that contaminates the selling point of Santa Cruz for many people—the ocean—and potentially our own bodies.

Peterson believes that the thicker plastic bags incur less cost to companies since they are both cheaper in material, and lighter than paper bags.

Gutshall said, “we incur more cost of labor when receiving reusable bags and the bag fee helps make us whole.” Perhaps this increase in labor cost creates an incentive to seek cheaper bagging options and to supply plastic to unknowing customers.

Not all of this burden can be put on the stores, though. Citizens should be taking personal responsibility and Safeway “encourages customers to bring their own bags,” says Gutshall. If demand for plastic and paper bags—both of which are unsustainable—were to diminish, Safeway and other retailers would have less incentive to provide bags to its customers.

People should take on the task of bringing their own reusable bags. They would save money and space if they bought just a few of their own reusable cloth bags.

My own mother has a collection of paper and plastic bags which imposes on the square footage of her kitchen, and as long as there is an option to buy a 10 cent bag from retailers, there is an excuse to forget your reusable bags at home.

This is a best case scenario for plastic bags that don’t get reused. Unfortunately, millions of plastic bags make the big migration into landfills, storm drains, rivers, and oceans. This affects all of us, landlocked or not, and the only way to impede the destruction of our food sources and ecosystems is for everyone—corporations and civilians alike—to take initiative in stopping plastic bags from encroaching into our stores.