It’s In the Bag

27 11 2007

Plastic Bags

By Jill Ettinger

November 20th marked the beginning of the end of plastic bags for San Francisco. It’s no surprise that this progressive city is leading the way in reducing their carbon footprint. Mayor Newsom attracted worldwide attention when he implemented a ban on plastic water bottles in all city government buildings earlier this year (citing the more than one billion bottles that end up in California landfills annually). Many cities followed suit, looking for ways to minimize plastic use. Almost overnight, the faucet is back in fashion. The city is now at it again as their Board of Supervisors recently enforced a ban on plastic bags. When an agreement with the California Grocers Association failed to yield the reduction they promised, the city’s ban went into effect.

The plastic bag first found its way to grocery stores only thirty years ago. It has since taken over our culture: we use 60,000 plastic bags in America every five seconds. Plastic bags are made using millions of gallons of oil. “Freedom” Plastic Bags Inc. describes their method:

“The process starts with a resin that feeds into an extruding machine. As the resin is fed through a heated screw, it is forced to mix and melt to a liquid state. The screw forces the melted resin through a die forcing it into a tube. Blowing air through the center of the die ring expands the tube, sometimes called a bubble (much like blowing up a balloon). The amount of air and speed in which the tube travels up a tower determines the size and thickness of the plastic. The bubble travels up a tower to cool the melted plastic. Once cooled, the bubble is flattened and travels down the tower through a set of rollers. When the plastic reaches the bottom, it is wound on a large roll.”

Seems like a lot of work just for carrying stuff in, especially considering that they tear, rip and often break wide open. Why does this unreliable trade-off seem more reasonable than carrying around a sturdy alternative, like a canvas bag? If plastic bags were cars, most wouldn’t be allowed on the roads. In addition to the wasteful and caustic production process, plastic bags take nearly forever to break down. No one has outlived a plastic bag. It takes approximately one thousand years for a plastic bag to reduce itself into microscopic particles, which continue to contaminate water and soil. They have been found on the shores of Antarctica. (Unless there’s a secret penguin Wal-Mart that we have yet to discover, they are washing up from somewhere else.) Yet we hoard them like they were gold. Perhaps future cultures will dig this stuff up and place it in museums, wear it around their necks and wonder how it came to be that humans figured out how to make precious plastic.

Mayor Newsom will certainly be remembered for his contribution to a plastic-free society, and even more remarkably, so might New Jersey. Historically, New Jersey is a leader. The most densely populated state has been first in a lot of things. Atlantic City built the first (and still longest) boardwalk in the world: four miles. Blueberry cultivation started here, as did the holiday must-have condiment, cranberry sauce. The country’s largest grove of summers’ favorite blossom – the cherry tree – is in Newark. The FM Radio, movie camera, lithium battery, postcards, saltwater taffy, zippers and drive-in movies, all originate from the “Come See For Yourself” state. Music was significantly influenced as Frank Sinatra grew up in Hoboken and both Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen hail from the Jersey Shore. (And, InnerContinental calls Jersey City home too). According to Bloomberg.com New Jersey is poised to seize another credit by possibly becoming the first U.S. state to ban plastic bags. Maybe the mafia has a sustainability initiative as well? Whatever. We’ll take it.

If you live anywhere near the Jersey Turnpike, or have ever just even had the displeasure of driving through it, it’s no secret that there’s heinous stuff going on that can’t possibly be related to blueberries. New Jersey houses the second largest petroleum containment system IN THE WORLD (second to the Middle East). Jersey refineries are responsible for pumping out more than half a million barrels every day. Un-bagging New Jersey is an important, albeit subtle message to the petroleum industry inoculating our air and water. If we remove the petrol-based bags, we’re reducing the barrier to the real problem itself, putting us just one step closer to replacing oil once and for all.

[The picture at the top depicts the amount of bags used in this country every five seconds, taken by Chris Jordan in his “Running The Numbers” series.]

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