It seems hardly even controversial any more to assert that we must begin to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. Not just because the supply of fossil fuels is running low, but also because their use is becoming untenable in light of their environmental and ecological costs. Fuels such as petroleum and natural gas aren't just used to produce energy, they also compose a dizzying spectrum of plastic products that we use hundreds of times a day. Consider the disposable plastic shopping bag that has become emblematic of our consumer culture. By some calculations the bag is “the single most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, numbering in the trillions” (Lapidos). Americans alone discard some one hundred billion bags annually after trips home from stores, the “equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil” (Lapidos). Across the globe, humans use a mind-boggling 1.2 trillion plastic bags per year, or about three hundred per every adult on the planet. That's one million plastic bags consumed every minute of every day (“Plastic, Paper, or Cotton”). It's time to get rid of the disposable plastic shopping bag.
Although bags can be recycled with difficulty, they almost never are. Only about 2 percent of bags are recycled in the US, and only about 1 percent are recycled world wide (Mieszkowski). The science isn't clear on exactly how long plastic stays around – we just haven't had plastic around long enough. Estimates range from five-hundred up to a thousand years. The extreme lightness of the bags and the ease with which the wind can carry them is problematic for obvious reasons. Even bags that have been thrown away properly can easily become litter again
because of their aerodynamics (Mieszkowski). This means bags end up being found in places like remote islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, snagged in trees with with albatross nests (Mieszkowski).
Plastic bags don't biodegrade, but they do fragment when exposed to sunlight, eventually breaking apart into microscopic granules (Lapidos). The problem is that on a molecular level they are not actually “breaking down,” they are just simply separating into very, very tiny pieces of plastic. By air and by water, as whole bags and fragments, vast amounts of plastic bags find their way into the ocean. Stories have abounded the last few years of huge eddies of plastic trash found floating in the oceans. In the Pacific, not far from Hawaii, there floats a plastic garbage zone twice the size of Britain (Kiernan). Bags that are still whole are often mistaken by marine animals for jellyfish or squid and consumed. Some estimates of marine animal death from plastic entanglement and plastic consumption are as high as 100,000 per year (Kiernan). But even more pernicious is the plastic that breaks down into tiny, tiny, granules. These particles become filtered and ingested by all sorts of sea life that survives on plankton. In the plastic zone in the Pacific...