My Turn: What's wrong with plastic?

Bags break down, pollute seas, kill marine wildlife

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2007

The following are facts from Algalita Marine Research Foundation and other scientific organizations that study the effects of plastics on the marine environment:

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Plastic bags don't biodegrade, they photodegrade (they're broken down into small toxic bits, less than the diameter of a human hair) and contaminate ocean, air, soil and food. They contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxic man-made chemicals now found throughout the food chain - from shellfish to humans. These toxins are now in human breast milk and in children and adults around the world. They are one of the reasons cancer rates have risen since 1975. Many marine animals contain so many of these toxins that they can be legally classified as toxic dumps. Thousands of dead animals are washing up on beaches around the world.

In some areas of the ocean, there are six times more plankton-sized plastic bits than plankton. Birds, fish and marine animals ingest these bits thinking they are food. Millions of animals are dying, and, although their bodies biodegrade, the plastics remain to be eaten by other animals.

No one knows to what extent plastic bags cover the ocean floor. In some areas of the ocean, scientists have been unable to find the floor because it is so heavily layered with plastic bags. Half of all plastic in the ocean sinks, and under these bags, the shellfish, worms and other tiny animals that help make up the bottom of the food chain are dead.

Every year the United States consumes 100 billion plastic shopping bags and throws away an estimated 8 billion pounds of these bags.

The world uses 1 million plastic bags per minute.

It is estimated to take up to 1,000 years for plastic bags to degrade in a warm landfill and longer in a cold ocean environment.

We don't need plastic bags. We are killing the ocean, ourselves and our descendants for short-term convenience.

Paper bags are not a viable alternative because they use millions of trees and their processing spews more poisons into the environment. Many people around the world instead use cloth and string bags.

There are biodegradable bags available that are made from potato and corn starch.

Expect bans around the world as facts about the terrible effects of plastic bags on human health and the planet become known. Plastic bags are now banned in South Africa, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Paris, Mumbai, San Francisco, some Chinese cities and many Alaska villages. They are taxed in Australia and Ireland. States besides Alaska are debating taxes and bans.

The ocean is 71 percent of the Earth's surface and supplies up to 85 percent of the world's oxygen and nitrogen. No human, animal or plant can live without the ocean. Its health is rapidly deteriorating, and we must find a way to reverse this trend. Stopping the use of plastic bags is something everyone can do.

• Dixie Belcher is a volunteer with Turning the Tides, a Juneau organization dedicated to raising awareness about the deterioration of the Pacific Ocean.

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