by Whit Gibbons

September 12, 2004

Do you know what sea turtles, Ireland, and grocery stores have in common? All have been dramatically influenced by the excessive use of plastic bags.

Remember a few years ago when we brought groceries home in a big brown paper sack? Today we stuff everything from bottles to fresh fruit into those little plastic bags with the carrying straps. We then use the bags at home to hold everything from cat litter to lunch for the office. We cannot live without these plastic bags, which we were told during the paper to plastic transition would be environmentally prudent. We must cut down trees to make the paper bags, and . . . I cannot really remember the rationale given for substituting plastic for paper, but the handy new plastic product seemed practical in many ways.

Well, today so many plastic bags have been produced throughout the world that if we filled one-tenth of them with pennies we could pay off the national debt. The most conservative estimate is that a half trillion plastic grocery bags are produced each year. This is a staggering figure that might lead to such statements as "if they were made into a blanket, they could cover the entire earth and still have enough to cover the moon." I do not know if that calculation is accurate, but I would not be surprised if it were true. The United States uses about one billion each year, more than 10 tons a day. For people who like to bring issues back to the practical side of U.S. dependency on foreign oil, more than 10 million barrels of oil are necessary to make enough plastic bags for the United States each year.

Where do the bags go and do they cause any harm? Imagine being a leatherback sea turtle, the most enormous turtle in the world. You eat jellyfish. And where do you find jellyfish? Floating on top of the ocean, whereupon you merely swim along with your mouth open when you find them. Unfortunately, a tasty jellyfish and a floating plastic bag do not look much different to a sea turtle, so thousands of bags are consumed each year. Numerous sea turtle deaths caused by digestive systems clogged with plastic bags have been documented in recent years. The same phenomenon extends to whales, sea gulls, and seals. Plastic bags are a poor diet for any animal.

I assume that everyone in America is as confused about economics as Alan Greenspan and I are. Included in that quagmire of confusion is a monster that most politicians are afraid to wake up-taxes. Well, since I am not running for office, I can comfortably state that many of our environmental problems would be readily solved if we would make people pay to pollute. In other words, we should allow people to use or even waste all of the plastic bags they want, as long as they pay additional state and federal taxes. The new money in the treasuries can go to programs to clean up plastic bags in a state, the country, and even the world.

Some countries have already implemented plans to attack the excessive use of plastic bags. Ireland has instituted a personal tax of around a quarter for the use of a plastic bag, and not surprisingly plastic bag consumption has decreased by more than 90 percent. The Irish have simply stepped up recycling and rediscovered less wasteful ways to carry small items. South Africa has passed legislation to fine retailers who provide unrecyclable plastic bags. Taiwan has regulatory procedures that will soon go in place to curtail or limit plastic bag use in most shops and stores.

The United States is clearly the leader in many issues on a world scale, many of which we should be proud of. But for others we should be ashamed. If an Olympic sport were designed for a competition between countries that had done the most for preventing pollution on a worldwide basis, we might not even qualify to participate, let alone come anywhere near winning even a bronze medal. Imagine Ireland, Taiwan, and South Africa receiving their Olympic medals, while Americans reach into plastic bags for their lunch as they watch.

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