On average, the lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes. That’s 720 seconds from the moment it is received at a point of purchase until it is discarded, having fulfilled its fleeting purpose of carrying your lunch, groceries, shampoo or new t-shirt on a quick trip home. However, when that bag is discarded, there’s a 99% certainty it will not be recycled. It will go into a landfill, be incinerated or — worst of all — end up in the environment. The flimsiness that makes them cheap and plentiful also makes plastic bags virtually unrecyclable.
Sadly, even a landfill is not necessarily where they will stay. Plastic bags are easily caught up in the breeze and may end up wherever the wind blows, snagging in trees, tumbling along streets and — worst of all — polluting the streams and rivers that comprise our Chesapeake Bay watershed and feed into our one, interconnected ocean.
To understand the hazards these seemingly harmless products pose, it helps to understand how they’re made. The process of turning oil into plastic is lengthy, energy-intensive and tremendously harsh on our environment. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil are required to manufacture the 102 billion plastic bags Americans use annually. Burning this crude oil pours an astonishing amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it fuels climate change, ocean warming and more intense storms.
Before they even arrive at the store, plastic bags are trouble — but the worst still awaits. Nearly 9 million tons of plastic debris enter the ocean annually. Once in the environment, plastic never really goes away. It breaks down into smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastic that is mistakenly ingested by tiny animals at the base of the food chain. Leaching carcinogens, it bioaccumulates in larger animals, eventually making its way into the diet of apex predators — a category that includes us. And while little is known about how this infestation affects our long-term health, we already know that microplastics bond to heavy metal toxins like mercury, where they remain permanently in the bodies of the fish we eat.
Scientists warn that, if we continue producing and discarding plastic at our present rate, by 2050 there will be more of it in the ocean, pound for pound, than fish. The threat of all that plastic to marine life is well-known. Turtles mistake bags for jellyfish and die of asphyxiation or malnourishment. Whales and other marine mammals become entangled in massive floating plastic trash bundles, unable to migrate or hunt for food. Perhaps most frightening is the fact that almost every bit of plastic ever produced still exists, in some form. It is virtually indestructible.
Smart communities are saying they’ve had enough. The Baltimore City Council will soon vote on the Comprehensive Bag Reduction Bill #19-0401. Joining other cities and counties around the nation, this bag bill will eliminate single-use plastic bags from stores throughout Baltimore City and encourage consumers to carry reusable shopping bags. Building on the success of last year’s polystyrene foam container ban, this bill could dramatically decrease the plastic pollution now cluttering our streets, yards and waterways.
Going a step further, the bag bill wisely charges a nominal fee of 5 cents for each paper bag a consumer uses at a store. This fee is not punitive; instead, it’s an important motivator intended to help reinforce behavior change as people learn to “live without the bag.” By switching to reusable totes, consumers are spared the bag fee, retailers are spared the expense of providing bags and we succeed beyond merely replacing plastic litter with paper litter. If a portion of the fee helps people outfit themselves with reusable bags, we will all benefit from the investment in a tidier and healthier city.
At the National Aquarium, we believe plastic pollution is a problem we can stop in our lifetime. Simple, commonsense actions like removing single-use plastics from our daily lives benefit the air we breathe, the water we drink and, most importantly, our children’s health. This bill is just such a solution, and its result will be a cleaner, safer future for us all.
John Racanelli ([email protected]), president and chief executive officer of the National Aquarium since 2011, is an ocean conservationist who has led and supported U.S. aquariums for nearly 40 years.