As potters, how can we live a life less plastic? Well, we are already contributing.
Potters make functional art for everyday use. Every time someone uses a hand-made mug, or bowl, or plate they are making a choice to use something permanent instead of something that is disposable. It’s choice to live a life less plastic.
“Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: ‘Plastics.’
Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.”
–Walter Brooke to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate
Exactly how much plastic do we use? Let’s narrow our discussion down to plastic bags.
According to a document published in 2008 by William T. Fujioka, CEO of L.A. County, an estimated 6 billion plastic bags are consumed each year–just in that county.
In this same document it’s estimated that worldwide plastic bag consumption is between 500 billion and 1 trillion bags annually. Almost 1 million plastic bags every minute.
In fact, the average family accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store.
In the best circumstances, high-density polyethylene will take more than 20 years to degrade. In less ideal circumstances, such as land fills or as general refuse, a bag will take more than 1,000 years to degrade.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated 3,960,000 tons of plastic bags and wraps were produced in 2008. Of those, 3,570,000 tons (90%) were discarded.
This is almost triple the amount discarded the first year plastic bag numbers were tracked(1,230,000 tons in 1980).
BBC and CNN esitmate that anywhere from .5% to 3% of all bags winds up recycled.
A 2006 UN study found that every square mile of the ocean has about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in it. The study also stated that 10% of the plastic produced every year worldwide winds up in the ocean. 70% of which finds its way to the ocean floor, where it will likely never degrade.
So what impact does our consumption of plastic have on us?
According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually at an estimated cost to retailers of $4 billion.
The extremely slow decomposition rate of plastic bags leaves them to drift on the ocean for untold years. According to Algalita Marine Research Foundation, these plastic bags cause the death of many marine animals (fish, sea turtles, etc.), every year when animals mistake them for food.
In the statistical breakdown of a 2008 cleanup by the Ocean Conservancy, numbers were kept on 43 different types of refuse. Cigarette butts were the most common. Plastic bags came in second.
When plastics break down, they don’t biodegrade; they photo-degrade. This means the materials break down to smaller fragments which readily soak up toxins. They then contaminate soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion.
Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up to harvest them. These are then woven and sold as hats and (more durable) bags.
Refuse plastic absorbs pre-existing organic pollutants, including Bisphenol A (BPA) and polychlorinated biphenyls(PCBs).
The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry has this to say about PCBs: “Animals that ate food containing large amounts of PCBs over short periods of time had mild liver damage and some died. Animals that ate smaller amounts of PCBs in food over several weeks or months developed various kinds of health effects, including anemia; acne-like skin conditions; and liver, stomach, and thyroid gland injuries.”
One study involving the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction and a National Toxicology Program (NTP) Expert Panel has reported on effects of BPA on development. They found cause for “some concern” related to behavioral, neural, and prostate function effects on mammals. On the NTP concern scale, “some concern” rates 3 out of 5.
So what’s the solution?
The solution is not switching to paper bags or compostable plastic bags. A study on the life cycle of three types of disposable bags (single-use plastic, paper, and compostable plastic) showed that both compostable plastic and paper bags require more material per bag in the manufacturing process. This means “higher consumption of raw materials in the manufacture of the bags…[and] greater energy in bag manufacturing and greater fuel use in the transport of the finished product. …The added requirements of manufacturing energy and transport for the compostable and paper bag systems far exceed the raw material use in the standard plastic bag system.” (from a peer-reviewed Boustead Consulting & Associates report)
Reuseit, an organization dedicated to eliminating the use of deposable items, supports a multi-pronged approach that discourages the distribution of plastic bags with a tax and a cultural shift away from use-and-toss plastic bags:
In 2001, Ireland implemented a plastic tax (or PlasTax); the first of its kind, this route acknowledges the fact that people will still occasionally use plastic bags. This market-based solution discourages daily, thoughtless use of plastic bags by charging a nominal fee per bag at checkout. In a study by the Irish Department of the Environment it was found that plastic bag usage had dropped 93.5%. This breaks down to a drop from 328 to 21 bags per person each year.
A cultural shift away from use-and-toss culture: Each reusable bag can eliminate hundreds, even thousands of plastic bags.
Each year, we consume an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.
According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.
Americans alone discarded more than 3.3 million tons of low- and high-density polyethylene bags, sacks, and wraps in 2000 (EPA).
The U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually.
Taiwan consumes 20 billion bags a year—900 per person (industry publication, Modern Plastics).
Four out of every five bags handed out at grocery stores in the USA are plastic. Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion (source EPA.gov)
And there is an environmental cost to using plastic bags. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food. Turtles think the bags are jellyfish, their primary food source. Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.
On land, many cows, goats and other animals suffer a similar fate to marine life when they accidentally ingest plastic bags while foraging for food.
So is recycling the answer?
The fact is that plastic bags are rarely recycled, currently accounting for only 1-3% in the US.
Plastic bags don’t degrade easily in natural environments nor landfills. In fact they do not biodegrade, they photo-degrade, which can take up to 1,000 years breaking into smaller and smaller particles (often toxic to surrounding ecosystems).
It is more expensive to recycle plastic bags and bring them back into the marketplace than to create new ones.
So what are other countries doing about this pandemic? One of the poorest countries in the world, Bangladesh has banned plastic bags since 2002. China has even banned free plastic bags (resulting in 27 million barrels of oil saved). San Francisco has banned plastic bags in stores. Some counties in NY have banned plastic bags and LA has imposed strict limitations.
Whole Foods and Trade Joe’s have banned plastic bags. Some retailers offer incentives to bring your own; few, however, impose an extra cost for plastic bag use.