My Turn: Do we need plastic bags?

Made from nonrenewable resources, the items are responsible for killing birds, marine life

Posted: Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Last month, Juneau Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, a high school organization, proclaimed a "no-plastic-bag week" and asked citizens to use cloth bags, saving thousands of plastic bags in Juneau.

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Most of us give little thought to what happens to plastic bags - made from nonrenewable resources (oil) that become nonbiodegradable garbage piling up in dumps and killing tens of thousands of birds and marine life every year. Burning them is illegal, as they release PCBs into the air - endocrine disrupters that dramatically affect our health and that of the planet.

U.S. News and World Report recently featured the work of Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who reports finding six times more plastic bits than plankton in the Central Pacific "gyre" - a mass of water bigger in area than the United States, Canada and Mexico combined - where fish, sea mammals and birds congregate to feed. Millions of animals are wolfing down jellyfish-like plastic bags and dying from choked digestive systems. Scientists have discovered that trillions of plastic pellets used to make these bags are found throughout the ocean, attracting other toxins which attach themselves and ride ocean currents throughout the world - consumed by unsuspecting sea life. Fish and shellfish eat tiny pieces of plastic, full of PCBs and other poisons, which become part of their flesh and eaten by other animals, including humans. National Public Radio reports that plastic bags layer much of the bottom of the ocean, preventing essential nutrients manufactured on the ocean bottom from reaching both marine and land organisms (including humans). Plastic debris is not just an eyesore. It is causing a rapid deterioration of marine ecosystems - systems that provide air (up to 80 percent of the world's oxygen) and food. Nothing can live without the ocean. Not even a cactus.

Do we need plastic bags? Are they indispensable? Are they worth it?

Ireland has taxed plastic bags at 15 pence each, cutting 90 percent of their use and raising $10 million annually in revenue. They are banned in Bangladesh, Thailand and Indian cities, including Bombay, with police raids on shops and factories that handle or manufacture them. Other Southeast Asian countries have either banned or are taking steps to discourage their use.

For hundreds of years, people used cloth or string bags when they went to market. Most supermarkets sell cloth bags and offer five cents off purchases when they are used. Most of our daily choices help to return the planet to health or continue its downward slide. Many scientists are calling their work "documenting the decline." It is possible to reverse this. The decision is ours. Buy a cloth bag - and use it! Let's support these students who are working towards a healthy future for our children and grandchildren.

• Dixie Belcher is a Juneau resident and member of Turning the Tides, a local organization trying to raise awareness about ocean issues.

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