Friday, July 7, 2017

Kick the Plastic Habit: Plastic bags and other single-use packaging

A mother sea otter attempts to remove a plastic bag from her pup.
Photo credit:

As residents of this beautiful planet we call Earth, we are charged with its stewardship.  Regardless of nationality, economic status or religious beliefs, we are all temporarily tethered to this breathtaking sphere of rock, suspended miraculously in space.  From the earth, we all derive life-giving sustenance: clean air, pure water, nutritious food.  We bathe in its waters, feast on its abundance, and revel in its beauty.  The care of our planet and our finite resources should be the easiest thing in the world (no pun intended) for us all to agree on.

And yet... we are clearly failing, somewhat miserably.

Worldwide, one million plastic bags are used every minute.  In one year, our world of brilliant, talented, beautiful human beings manages to use 500 billion single-use plastic bags. 

For what purpose?!  To carry items (also wrapped in plastic) a few yards from the trunks of our cars into our homes.  How have we come to this?!

Americans alone use 100 billion plastic bags every year.  That's just over 300 bags per person each year!  Multiply that by all of your family members, young and old alike, and that adds up to nearly 1,500 bags used by the average American family in one year.

The vast majority of these bags are used for just a few minutes before being discarded (or waded up under the sink or... stuffed into the space beside the refrigerator??  Who does that?!  I've seen it more than once...).  A shocking number of these bags end up in the ocean, where 80% of the plastic pollution has entered the water from land-based sources.  (Next time it's windy outside... notice the magical way plastic bags can travel great distances as they drift on endless air currents.  You may suddenly realize the ocean is closer than you thought.)

Photo credit: One Green

About one percent of plastic bags are actually recycled.  (Good job, Average American Family, on recycling those 15 bags per year!)

One plastic bag may take up to 500 years (or more) to degrade; but plastics do not biodegrade, or return to the earth; they never go away.  Instead, plastics photodegrade, which means they continue to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, persisting in the environment (and the food web) as microplastics. 

California's recent plastic bag ban, enacted in November of 2016, is certainly a step in the right direction.  The flimsy single-use grocery bags are hopefully becoming a thing of the past (though as I just mentioned, they're still going to be around for a long, long time).  Stores now sell "reusable" plastic bags at checkout, which are basically just thicker single-use bags.  They're intended (and certified) for 125 uses, but I've already seen plenty of them littering the roadways in my area.  They represent a loophole and are far from ideal.  And in my opinion... we need to look toward phasing out other plastic packaging and wrapping as well - sandwich bags, plastic cling wrap, etc.

Photo credit: Sierra

Happily, there are plenty of easy things you can do at home to help the environment, and using reusable shopping bags has got to be one of the easiest.  The initial investment is small; you might already have a seldom-used beach tote or basket laying around that will work perfectly well as a shopping bag.  Reusable mesh or fabric produce bags are excellent as well. 

Shopping for favorite items sans plastic packaging gets a little bit more complicated, but do what you can.  Of course, the holy grail of the plastic free quest is a massive selection of affordable foods in bulk bins.  I would love to pop into my local grocery store, armed with my assortment of reusable bags, and fill them with all manner of staple goods - beans, rice, cereal, nuts, crackers, etc. - for a reasonable price.  And if this is a reality for you, then be thankful!  (I'm jealous.)  Where I live, a small-ish town in California's Central Valley, this kind of grocery store set-up is difficult to find, especially for those of us trying to stretch our dollars (as most of us in the valley are, by the way).

Bulk bin heaven: how all grocery stores should function.  This is the stuff of dreams, my friend!
Photo credit:

But, let us not lose hope.  There are a few key ways to reduce your plastic consumption:

1.  Use reusable grocery bags.  Use them at every store you visit, for every purchase.  Keep them on your person at all times so you will remember!  (They make neat little bags that fold up inside themselves for convenient storage in your purse or pocket.)

2.  Use reusable produce bags.  Those little filmy produce bags at the grocery store hold even less potential for future use at home than regular grocery bags.  Plus, they're a pain to open; just don't bother.

3.  Avoid plastic packaging.  Choose loose potatoes, onions, oranges and apples instead of those that are prepackaged.  Select items in glass or paper/cardboard packaging instead of plastic, since glass and paper both have more recycling potential than plastic. 

Maybe you'll think of this seal the next time you reach for a neat little mesh bag of oranges at the grocery store.
Photo credit:

4.  In the kitchen, find viable alternatives to plastic sandwich bags, Ziploc bags and plastic wrap.  There are plenty of food storage alternatives to explore, like reusable sandwich bags, bees wax fabric wraps, and glass food storage containers (ranging from lidded bowls and traditional Tupperware-type containers to trusty glass jars - either the canning type, or pickle jars you have washed out!)

5.  As a last resort, if you absolutely must buy plastic packaging, take care to recycle it properly
Recycling - or more accurately, downcycling, since the material loses quality as it is recycled - is never the perfect solution, but it's better than nothing.

Pay attention to the plastic resin codes, the triangular symbols on all plastics.  Just because a plastic has the "recycling" symbol doesn't mean it's recyclable!  The numbers inside the triangle indicate the type of plastic and it's potential for recycling. 

Best plastics in terms of health and recyclability:
Number 2 (HDPE, high density polyethylene: white or colored plastic, like milk bottles, shampoo bottles, and plastic grocery bags - these can be downcycled)
Number 4 (LDPE, low density polyethylene: soft, flexible plastic, like squeeze bottles)
Number 5 (PP, polypropylene: hard, flexible plastic, like yogurt containers and other "tubs")

*Number 1 plastics are middle-of-the-road in terms of both health and recyclability.  Avoiding them is best!  And yet, this type of plastic is extremely prevalent.  Number 1 plastics are PET, polyethylene terephthalate; they are designed for single-use only, and further use can cause chemical leaching.  This type of plastic is tough and clear - the type that makes up our despised plastic water bottles and other bottles, including salad dressing bottles. 

Avoid these plastics:
Number 3 (V or PVC, polyvinyl chloride: this is arguably the nastiest plastic out there, and takes numerous forms, from the well-known PVC pipes and garden hoses, to shower curtains, plastic toys and plastic cling wrap.  It's not easy to recycle and contains the most dangerous chemicals.
Number 6 (PS, polystyrene: the infamous Styrofoam, which crops up in packaging, cups, take-out containers, egg cartons, cd and dvd cases and more.  Plastic cutlery is also number 6.)
Number 7 (OTHER, or commonly PC, polycarbonate: a catch-all category for all the plastics of mysterious origin that have wormed their way into our lives.  Best to leave these alone as often as possible, though that is difficult since this category encompasses such ubiquitous things as sunglasses and car parts, acrylic and nylon.)

Now, I'd like to make a caveat.  The use of plastics isn't all bad.  My laptop, phone and camera?  All partially plastic.  Plenty of life-saving medical instruments and supplies?  Plastic, or made up of some plastic components.  Certain nifty lightweight camping and backpacking pieces of gear that I enjoy using (like my four season tent, backpack, sleeping pad and fleece sweater)?  Definitely synthetic products.  But these things are all destined for long and useful lives when we care for them properly and change our throw-away mentality.  (My five-year-old laptop is still kicking, much to the disappointment of the guys at Best Buy.)

The point is, we must be wise in our stewardship of plastics (and the oil they are derived from) just like any other resource.  Single-use items of any material are generally unwise, wasteful and unsustainable in the long run.  Should plastics be avoided entirely?  Well, sure, that would be great.  But it's unlikely to happen. 

A more realistic goal is to phase out the plastics that are the easiest to live without.  At the top of the list of utterly unnecessary plastics are plastic bags (and other plastic packaging), plastic bottles, all types of take-away cups (like coffees and fast food sodas), and straws.  Take the Plastic Free July challenge this summer and see what habits you are able to change.

Below is a [somewhat graphic] photo of the stomach contents of a Cuvier's Beaked Whale that died after ingesting 30 plastic bags and other pieces of plastic.  I'd love to tell you that finding this story was difficult since this sort of occurrence is such a rarity, but a quick Google search will yield plenty of results of this nature.  Plastics in our oceans has become a huge epidemic.

photo courtesy of

Somewhere around one million sea birds and 100,000 mammals (whales, seals, etc.) die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic pollution.  And I haven't even mentioned the effects of plastic pollution on human populations around the world!

Plastic removed from the stomach of a dead Cuvier's Beaked Whale.  Read the full story here:
photo courtesy of

A few simple lifestyle changes have the potential for dramatic positive results.  It wasn't that long ago that plastics and single-use plastic bags and packaging were unheard of!  And yet, folks managed to live perfectly productive, fulfilled lives without them.  Let's imagine a world where we carry groceries in reusable bags and wrap our food and other products in sustainable materials, like paper, glass and fabric.  Let's imagine a world where children don't have to swim through scummy layers of plastic in their local waterways, where whales, turtles and birds don't die of starvation from stomachs full of plastic.

Check my facts and learn more here:
and here:

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