The Plastic Bag Debate


By Jessie Emerson, Chapter Zero Waste leader
The National Climate Data Center released a report early January 2013 saying that 2012 was the warmest year on record in the US since it started keeping records in 1895. The Federal government released its crop report January 14th of this year: there have been crop losses caused by the worst drought since the 1950’s.

It is clear that the planet is in a warming cycle that is accelerated by
industralization and carbon emissions, ie. by fossil fuels. Steven davis of
the University of california states,” The only real solution to climate change
is to stop dumping CO2 into the atmosphere altogether.”

This article will focus on how plastic bags contribute to global warming,
environmental degradation and human health problems. We will also
discuss the use of corn plastics.

Approximately 380 billion plastic bags are used in the US every year.
That s more than 1,200 bags per US resident per year. An estimated 12
pumillion barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags. It is
estimated that global consumption of plastic bags is over 500 billion plastic
bags per year or 1 million bags used per minute. I can’t even imagine that
many bags and how many barrels of oil it takes to make those bags. Sadly,
only 1-2 % of plastic bags are recycled.

Single use plastic bags are well known for their damage to ecosystems.
They clog the digestive systems of animals and birds causing their deaths.
They release toxins into the soil and water. In India they contributed to a
massive flood in Bangladesh by clogging the storm drains. They now have
a nationwide ban of plastic bags.

When plastic bags are incinerated with organic material they produce
dioxin. Dioxin ( Agent Orange) is one of the most toxic group of
substances on our planet. When chlorine ( a substance in plastics, esp.
PVC plastics) is burned with organic substances ( paper, wood, food)
it creates dioxin. Wind blown incineration ash eventually lands in water,
soil and on plants. The newest studies and reports on dioxins effect on
human health say that the greatest impact in on the growth and
development of children. It has been associated with IQ deficits, both
withdrawn and hyper active behavior. It is a known carcinogen and an
endocrine disruptor. Insulin is an endocrine, dioxin interferes with insulin .
Diabetes has reached pandemic proportions. Those interested in learning
more about this can read The American People’s Dioxin Report published
by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.( There are 93 scientific

Is corn plastics the answer? They have been around for about 20
years. In the beginning it cost about $200 per pound to make a pound of
plastic. Despite its priciness, Newman’s Own Organics and Wild Oats have
been using it in their packaging. Now the price of making PLA is down
while the price of oil is rising. An independent analysis shows it generates
about 68% fewer green house gases and contains no toxins

The life cycle of corn plastics begins with a truck load of corn kernals.
that are then milled. Dextrose is extracted from the cornstarch. Hugh
fermentators convert the dextrose to lactic acid. Lactic acid is converted to
lactide and linked into long chains or polymers: polylactic acid, PLA.
While PLA’s are compostable, they require temperatures of 140’ for 10
consecutive days, not likely to be found in backyard composting. Large
commercial composting facillities can biodegrade corn plastic products
between 45 to 90 days. If placed in landfills they will rot as if they were
food, releasing methane gas, which is 21-72 times more potent than CO2.
( Gary Liss, Zero Waste Workshop, 2/22 2013, Santa Fe, NM)

PLA plastic and PET plastics don’t mix. Recyclers consider PLA a
contaminant. it has to be sorted out of the recyclable plastics bin and then
disposed of. Lester Brown president of Earth Policy Institute questions the
morality of turning a food into packaging when so many of Earth’s children
are starving.

Much of the corn used by Nature Works, owned by Cargill, is
genetically modified. Farmers, environmentalists and other critics oppose
the use of GMO crops claiming they will contaminate the traditional corn
and disrupt local ecosystems. Martin Bourque, executive director of
Berkley Ecology Center thinks corn-based packaging is better than
petroleum but thinks its use should be for “packaging that cannot be made
of paper” and used for products like TVs that cannot be readily recycled.
While the debate continues, countries like Italy and Ireland are taking
action. Italy was the first European country to issue a nationwide ban on
plastic bags. Ireland places a 15 cent fee on every bag which has
reduced usage by 90 % in the first 3 months. San Franciso was the First
American city to ban plastic bags. Washington D.C. has imposed a 5 cent
fee per bag, cutting a monthly use of 22.5 million bags to 3 million. What is
Santa Fe waiting for? It took two young women from the Go Green Club
at Wood Gormley Elementray School to stir the city council into action.
That was some time ago, they are still considering an ordinance to ban
plastic bags. As the young people said, “If we do it, we will inspire other cities and states and hopefully they will ban plastic bags, too.” If all the

Sierra Club members contacted their city counselors, perhaps this
ordinance will take effect. Meanwhile use reusable bags for your
shopping. Remember if you don’t bring it into your house, you don’t have
to dispose of it. And demand a carbon tax on the worst contributors to CO2
emissions into the atmosphere. We the People do have power. Earth is
the only home we have.

Jessie Emerson is available for Zero Waste talks and can give more tips on how
you can reduce your ecological footprint. Email Jessie