Plastics are becoming one of the biggest threats to marine life. While we produce 300 million tons of plastic annually (Raising Awareness of Plastic Waste – The New York Times), over 7 million tons of it ends up in the oceans where it breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments over the years. The tinier the pieces, the more easily they are swallowed by marine life. (One study found that fish in the North Pacific ingest as much as 24,000 tons of plastic debris a year). Plastic bags make up large percentage of the overall plastic waste polluting not just the ocean, but the environment as a whole.
But because plastic is light and cheap, there is a lot of it. And because it is so durable, it does not “go away.” Plastic accumulated over half a century is still out there.
According to the Valuing Plastic report the annual damage of plastics to marine ecosystems is at least $13 billion per year and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) estimates that the cost of ocean plastics to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries was $1.3 billion in that region alone. Even in Europe, where leakage is relatively limited, potential costs for coastal and beach cleaning could reach €630 million ($695 million) per year. In addition to the direct economic costs, there are potential adverse impacts on human livelihoods and health, food chains and other essential economic and societal systems.
Leaked plastics can also degrade other natural systems, such as forests and waterways, and induce direct economic costs by clogging sewers and other urban infrastructure.
Responding to this data, the supermarket chain Publix is now phasing plastic bags out of their stores in Coral Gables, Florida. The store is giving away branded reusable bags for free. At the checkout, the customers will no longer be offered a plastic bag for their groceries, but they can choose between fabric reusable bags and paper ones.
Given where we live, should our Food Lion stores also remove plastic bags? Like Publix, our local chains need to be more aware, more sensitive to environmental issues that directly affect where we live. This is a small, yet symbolic step that puts one of our major economic drivers in front of an important issue. By leading in this one small area, this could promote, and even entice others to adopt a recycling after-use policy that can help reduce the leakage of more plastics into the environment.