Urban tumbleweeds

Urban Tumbleweed – a carelessly discarded plastic bag picked up by the wind and blown about city streets.

They’re everywhere. They may be called “urban,” but these tumbleweeds can be seen in suburban, rural, mountain and aquatic environments. And unlike their namesake, these tumbleweeds don’t harmlessly biodegrade.

Plastic bags are made from oil, a non-renewable resource, in an energy-intensive and toxin-emitting process. They take years to break down and in breaking down they release toxins that can enter the food chain. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2008 Americans generated 3,960 thousand tons of plastics waste, including bags, sacks, and wraps, recycling barely one percent.

Not all plastics are made alike. Some biodegradable plastic bags are made from corn which, while non-toxic, generates a new set of questions from sustainable agriculture to food supply competition. They biodegrade as compost in a few months, but may not biodegrade at all in sanitary landfills. Some bags are labeled biodegradable when corn starch is combined with recycled plastic, but when they break down they still produce a toxic polymer like their all-plastic cousins.

Wildlife, especially fish and birds, commonly mistake plastic bag litter for food and subsequently starve with ingested plastics in their stomachs. Furthermore, when plastics break down in waterways they can release potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A, PCBs and derivatives of polystyrene. In addition to the toxic and particulate dangers plastics pose to wildlife, pollutants like PCBs and others are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected animal. If these animals become part of the human food supply, the toxins do too.

San Francisco banned plastic bags in 2007. With the New Year, Washington, D.C. has begun requiring all businesses that sell food and beverages to charge a five-cent per bag fee. City and state governments from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine have considered fees, bans and resolutions to encourage the reduction of plastic bag usage. Many approaches, like Colorado’s attempted plastic bag ban and Seattle’s 20-cent disposable bag fee, have been rejected by voters or state legislative bodies.

The best solution to bag pollution is the durable, reusable shopping bag. Many stores now sell them for as little as a dollar. Whole Foods replaces your bags if they break. Some are made from recycled or organic materials, or produced with minimal environmental impact. Google “reusable bag” and you’ll get nearly 15 million results — mostly online retailers selling an enormous variety of reusable bags, from fashionable to functional.

Published 05/02/2010 at http://www.ColoradoLovesGreen.com

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