My turn: Plastic bags? It's up to us

Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2010

We have a problem that is growing exponentially in Alaska and everywhere else. We have many problems, but this is one that each of us can do something about.

The world uses one million plastic bags a minute. 85% end up in the ocean. Scientists believe that about half of these sink to the bottom — suffocating everything there. Three years ago NPR reported that scientists trying to gather samples of ocean floor — 5 miles down — had to give up after a week of trying because the layers of bags on the bottom were too thick.

These bags, and other plastics, break down into tiny toxic bits — the diameter of a human hair — that scientists say are found throughout the ocean at the rate of one million per square kilometer.

Plankton, tiny fish, snails and other small beings consume these, which are then eaten by larger animals like halibut, crab and salmon. We are learning that we ingest — through food, water or air — whatever we throw away. Turn around time can be short.

Nature wastes nothing. This is the way of the biological system in which we live and of which we are a part. Poisoning this system poisons our bodies and those of our children.

Two hundred chemicals — some highly carcinogenic, many from plastics — are now found in the blood of newborn human babies. Autism and cancer in children has skyrocketed. Some babies are now born with cancer.

Then there’s oil. The Pentagon just released a report warning that the world is running out and that we need to reduce our usage and come up with alternatives ... fast. We may have as little as one quarter of what we have now by 2030. Many cities, and now whole countries, have banned or taxed plastic bags. Oil savings are enormous. CNN reports that China will save 37 million barrels of oil annually through their ban of free plastic bags.

It takes effort to remember to bring a reusable bag into stores. It is an indication of how habitual we are — it took me six months to get a reusable bag from the passenger seat into a store. The good news is that it’s possible.

A typical American family uses about 400 plastic bags a year. Juneau has 13,000 families — which generates about 5,200,000 bags a year.

Do we want to continue putting these bags into our environment, and ultimately, us? Or will we join Bethel, Hoopers Bay and other Alaska towns and villages, along with San Francisco, Palo Alto, Edmonds (Washington), Westport (Connecticut), Brownsville (Texas), Kauai, Maui, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Ontario, Ireland, Switzerland, Australia, Northern India, Rwanda, China, Bangladesh and many other cities and countries around the world in getting rid of them?

It is up to us.

• Dixie Belcher is a Juneau resident and member of Turning the Tides.

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