December 15, 2010

Plastic Bags, Sea Turtles, and Going Zero Waste

It's hard to believe that prior to the 1980s there were no plastic bags hanging from tree limbs or blowing artfully in gentle breezes. A scant 3 decades later and the planet is smothering under a tidal wave of the shopper's best friend - filmy, sturdy, and convenient plastic bags.

Between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. It seems like 50% of this problem plastic ends up flapping in trees. Another 48% probably ends up in the plastic slick in the middle of the North Pacific.

When these bags are eaten by sea turtles who mistake them for jelly fish, it endangers their lives. Most bags break down into tiny, toxic specks that eventually make it into the food chain. Hey, aren't we at the top of the food chain?

I figure that about 1% of plastic bags are reused and landfilled, and 1% are recycled (it costs more to recycle plastic bags than make new ones). Many grocery stores, though, have quit offering plastic bags altogether in a move in the right direction. It isn't a question of "paper or plastic" any more, because both are unnecessary. Using reusable bags is the way to go.

But in true human fashion, my most pressing conundrum is not dying sea turtles or plastic merchants propagating oil wars. I have been successful in getting off plastic bags. So staunch has been my refusal of the silky sacks that my giant bag of bags has dwindled to nothing.

And there is the conundrum. What will I use to take the trash out? I think the plastic in the food chain is affecting my thinking already because I can't remember how we did things in the Pre-plastic Era.

Using newspaper to create a liner for the garbage can is one way I thought I might replace plastic. The newspaper would be more biodegradable and keep the can clean. But what I decided would be best is to go zero waste. Recycle everything I can and collect food waste for composting.

I am changing my plastic habits and reducing the amount of waste I produce. Very little is coming into my home so it shouldn't be that hard to make sure nothing leaves it destined for the landfill. That should keep the sea turtles happy, and ultimately, what makes sea turtles happy will make us happy.

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