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Bag Those Bags

Plastic and paper both cause environmental ills, but fewer bags mean fewer problems.

By Melissa Gaskill

You see them everywhere, tumbling down the road, flapping in the trees, floating on rivers, washing up on beaches — those flimsy plastic bags handed out freely at the grocery and just about every other place of business. Americans use an estimated 100 billion a year, and most go in the trash after one use. Many of those, plainly, end up waltzing around Texas, where they become a potential hazard to wildlife.

“We know that certain animals eat plastic and certain animals get entangled in it,” says Tony Amos, a research fellow at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas. Several years ago, Amos and his colleagues opened up more than 100 loggerhead turtles found dead on the beach, and more than half had plastic in their digestive systems. Turtles mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish — their favorite food — but when swallowed, the bags can strangle the animal or get lodged in its digestive system, causing the turtle to stop eating. Plastic bags kill roughly 100,000 whales, sea turtles and other marine mammals each year, according to an Australian nonprofit organization, Planet Ark. Bags that float on the ocean long enough eventually break down into tiny bits that resemble plankton, which are consumed by real jellyfish, taking the place of actual nutrients. Plastic also soaks up pollutants from the ocean, which get passed up the food chain when the jellyfish are in turn eaten by fish and marine mammals.

In the 2004 International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers collected more than 22,000 bags along the Texas coast, and this total placed plastic bags in fifth place on the list of top 10 debris items. Volunteers also found 186 animals caught in debris, including plastic bags, fishing line, rope and balloons. Marine birds, diving for their supper, have become entangled in plastic bags, with disastrous consequences. Wildlife picking at scraps in litter on the land can get snared, too, or ingest the bags.

Besides presenting a danger to wildlife, plastic bags are unsightly. “Our sense of well-being in the world is enhanced by the aesthetics and the way things look,” says Amos. “And there is nothing worse than plastic, in my opinion.” Ironically, almost 70 percent of the total debris collected in the 2004 coastal cleanup came from recreational activities like picnics and days at the beach. In other words, the litter marring the view came from the very people there to enjoy it.

Paper bags pose less of a threat to wildlife, since paper tears easily and won’t suffocate an animal. Paper bags also biodegrade in about one week versus 5 to 10 years for plastic (although neither degrades well in a landfill). Paper is made from a renewable resource — trees and recycled paper — while plastic is made from nonrenewable petroleum. More paper bags are recycled — 22 percent, versus less than 1 percent for plastic. But paper production takes more water and energy, paper bags cost more (about 4 cents each versus 1 for plastic) and take up more space.

So, the best solution is decreased use of both kinds of bags. When you buy just one or two items, skip a bag altogether. Reuse bags on subsequent trips to the store, to line trash cans or to clean up after your dog. Recycle all extra bags and dispose of used bags properly. Better yet, use cloth shopping bags. The outdoors will not only look better, it’ll be safer, too.

For more information, visit Planet Ark <www.planetark.org> (click on Plastic Bags); Coastal Cleanup, <www.coastal cleanup .org>; Reusable Bags, <www.reusablebags.com>.

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