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Plastics – Still the Future?

2011 August 16

(EPA Photo/Kasia Broussalian)

By Adam Medoff

No, I don’t need a bag. Despite what cashiers think about my physique and general athletic capabilities, I swear I can carry my bagel and coffee the five blocks from the deli to my office. I don’t mean to put myself on the environmental pedestal (which happens to be located in an old growth Redwood tree and run by Rachel Carson and Julia “Butterfly” Hill…fyi). Plenty of non-eco-heroes decline plastic bags at checkouts every day. But should they even have the choice? In my hometown, San Francisco, we banned plastic bags back in 2007 and I cannot remember anyone complaining about our grave loss or reminiscing about the good ol’ days when plastic bags lined our landfills and beaches.

It’s fine, you say. Plastic bags are recyclable! Plus, even if they’re thrown out, they just go to a landfill. No big deal (though to be honest, if you are reading this blog and got the environmental pedestal joke, you probably don’t think it’s fine and at least think it’s a big-ish deal. But just play along for argument’s sake). Unfortunately, this simply isn’t the case. Environmental issues constantly provide the most extraordinary examples of “ignorance is bliss,” and plastic bags are no exception.

According to a recent report by Environment California, an environmental research and policy center, Californians recycle less than 5 percent of their plastic bags every year despite having the most progressive and aggressive recycling program in the country. And the ones in the trash don’t all make it to the landfill. Humans literally created a new section of the ocean where plastic particles outweigh the plankton—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It covers an area larger than Texas and even has its own Wikipedia page, so you know it’s legit. Is that really the legacy our generation wants to be known for? The one that created its own floating landfill?

(EPA Photo/Kasia Broussalian)

The rest of the world already leads in this field. Entire countries such as China, Ireland, Israel, and Germany banned plastic bags years ago. As with most modern environmental policy, the United States lags far behind. Forget talk on the national level, we haven’t even seen action from any states. San Francisco and Los Angeles are the only two prominent municipal governments to enact serious policies and unfortunately, being in California, they will always be labeled as progressive front-runners that do not symbolize the national trend (see AB-32 that succeeded in taking meaningful action on curbing carbon emissions where federal action completely failed). Other than that, the United States still huddles in the shadowed corner, afraid of taking a meaningful stance against such unnecessary waste.

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t wait for the day I tell my kids about how people used to use new plastic bags to carry things out of stores and then instantly turn to throw them out. They’ll look at me quizzically; “Dad, why didn’t you just bring your own bag?” Honestly, I have no idea.

Adam Medoff is a Summer Intern for the Office of the Regional Administrator in Region 2 of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is a rising junior at Amherst College, working towards a double-major in Economics and Environmental Studies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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