Remember the 2000 Oscar winning movie “American Beauty” with its iconic floating plastic bag image? Picture that scene. Now, imagine 90 billion more of them doing the exact same thing. According to the Retail Bags Report to the Legislature by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), that is the number of plastic bags used in 2003 within the United States alone. The 57-page report that was sent to both Florida’s Senate and House of Representatives to be reviewed this year, calls for the Legislature to, “review the available options and take action to discourage the use of single-use paper and plastic retail bags and encourage the use of reusable retail bags.”
In 2008, the Florida DEP was directed by the Energy, Climate Change, and Economic Security Act to, “analyze, research and report on the ‘necessity and efficacy’ of statewide or local regulation of retail bags.” And so the DEP did. What the report states, in many ways, is quite shocking. For starters, only 12% of plastic bags and only 37% of paper bags are actually reused or recycled.
In determining the necessity of plastic bags within the state, the report mainly focuses on two areas: Litter and Waste Management and Wildlife and the Environment. As for litter, in 2007, the International Coastal Cleanup Report found that bags are the “fourth most frequently found item during coastal cleanups worldwide.” According to the same study, Florida shows similar results.
As for waste management, “Retail bags cause equipment and operational problems at recycling facilities, landfills and waste transfer stations,” according to the report. The thin plastic bags get caught in machinery on a daily basis, causing delay in the recycling process and safety risks for workers. These time-consuming delays end up trickling down, costing the consumer more money for waste and recycling services.
When plastic bags aren’t recycled and are put into a landfill instead, they cause similar mechanical issues. “Some waste management professionals consider plastic retail bags to be the number one ‘fly away’ issue at landfills.” This causes more litter in surrounding areas.
Plastic bag litter has caused problems all over the world. Bangladesh, for example, completely banned plastic bags in 2002 after they were found to be the primary cause of major flooding due to the clogging of storm water drains during the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country.
Even Florida has been effected. According to the report, “In Tallahassee, there are three large flush trucks with two-person crews that work every day to keep storm water drains open.” The city employs ten people to clear the drains and ditches daily of litter while another six employees spend their time picking up roadside trash.
Don’t think that Marco Island has been spared from the effects of the dreaded plastic bag. The report cites an April 2008 flood on Marco Island as a main example of the need to eliminate or reduce plastic bags within the state. It was found that a combination of palm fronds, coconuts and plastic bags had clogged storm water drains.
As for Wildlife and Environment as a determining necessity factor, many Floridians can relate to the plightof the sea turtle. The report states that, “A variety of research has shown that turtles and other sea dwelling creatures ingest plastic and plastic bags. One study found plastic in the stomach of 15% of the 66 post-hatchling loggerhead sea turtles surveyed.”
The report also mentions many other animals that suffer due to plastic bags. “Deer, raccoons, possums, bears and other garbage and landfill scavengers have also been found with retail bags within their guts or have been seen eating such items. Retail bags, plastic in particular, can cause digestive system obstruction and lead to a variety of deaths, including starvation.” In fact, in 2002, India mandated a specific thickness requirement of all plastic bags to prevent sacred cows from inadvertently ingesting plastic bags. The rule was also implemented to aid in storm water runoff to help reduce malaria outbreaks.
As the bags float through the air or get sucked through a storm drain, many end up out at sea where they degrade into “nurdles.” These are described as very small, spherical pellets that look like many different oceanic food items, especially fish eggs. “One study performed on seabirds showed 55% of the bird species studied had ingested plastic particles.” The effect of these nurdles is somewhat unknown, “but it is known that ingestion of large amounts of non-food items can cause gut obstruction and ultimately death by starvation or nutrient deprivation.” These so-called nurdles were originally found in the ocean in the1970‘s and have been studied ever since.
As plastic bags are either made of petroleum or natural gas, when they degrade (read: flake apart into smaller pieces), “some of these chemicals are released into the water or atmosphere. It is likely that degradation of plastic bags releases greenhouse gases although estimates to the amount that may be released could not be found.”
Overall, the report gives the Florida Legislature 12 options as to the plastic bag debacle. An outright ban may be considered such as what was done recently in Hawaii. Partial bans, taxes on plastic bags, citizen awareness and incentives for using reusable bags are also options on the table.
Marco Island, however, as a city, has the power to ban plastic bags altogether if it so chooses. North Carolina Legislature recently passed a ban for the Outer Banks – a resort area that boasts beautiful beaches and a high population during its seasonal months. “The ban prohibits retail stores having more than 5,000 square feet of retail space or that are part of a retail chain from distributing plastic bags to consumers and allows paper bags to be given away only if the bag is made of 100% recycled content.
By mandating against plastic bags, the Outer Banks has encouraged consumers to utilize reusable bags – each of which replaces between 56.8 and 315.15 disposable plastic bags per year. While the range is quite large, “Still, even at the low end – taking nearly 60 disposable bags out of circulation for every one reusable bag – is remarkable.”
This is a very brief synopsis of the report, which also discusses the down side of disposable paper bags. To read the report yourself, visit www.dep.state.fl.us.