Enviro The Times’ Pro-Plastic Bag Crusade Continues
posted by April 9 at 10:40 AMon
Continuing the Seattle Times’ ongoing crusade against a 20-cent fee for disposable bags (shorter version: What is this, Soviet Russia? But what will I put my cat shit in? And what about the poor single moms whose minimum wage we opposed increasing?), columnist Danny Westneat weighs in today, writing that since plastic bags make up just a fragment of all the crap that’s in our oceans, they’re not really worth worrying about.
Maybe you’ve heard of Curt Ebbesmeyer. He’s considered one of the world’s leading oceanic garbologists (though, as he jokes, how many can there be?).From his basement in Ravenna, he uses beachcomber reports to track the comings and goings of floating sea trash. Like dozens of rat-poison canisters that washed onto Washington shores this spring. Or computer monitors, which “always float screen up, eyes peering out of the waves.”
An oceanographer, he also named the Earth’s most shameful man-made feature, the “great Eastern garbage patch.” That’s a Texas-sized soup of plastic junk, swirling in floating clouds across the Pacific between us and Hawaii.[…]
So when I asked him what he thought of Seattle’s plan to crack down on disposable grocery bags, I was surprised when he sort of shrugged.
“It’s OK, but plastic bags are not the real problem,” he said. “It’s one little battle out of a million. Go look at what the ocean carries in on a given day. You’ll see what I mean.”
Last month, Ebbesmeyer held a “Dash for Trash” in Ocean Shores. In two hours, 50 people collected an astonishing 2,000 pounds of junk from the beach. Almost all of it was plastic — from fishing floats to shotgun shells to dolls from Japan. Yet very little of it was the plastic bags targeted by Seattle.
See? Anecdotal evidence from a single source = irrefutable fact. Banning plastic bags—whoops, sorry, charging a nominal fee for people who refuse to bring their own canvas, cloth, paper, or plastic sacks—is totally pointless. Although there’s evidence that plastic bags do make up more than just a tiny fraction of the oceanic trash gyres (in fact, they’re the 12th most common form of debris washed up on shore), the thing that drives me nuts about arguments like this is that they’re selectively defeatest. Trading incandescent light bulbs is just “a drop in the ocean,” too. So is turning down the thermostat, driving less (hell, even giving up your car doesn’t do that much for the big picture), inflating your tires, or moving to a denser, more walkable community. Every individual step is a drop in the bucket. The reason the city is proposing a fee for plastic bags is that it may make some people decide it’s worth it to bring canvas bags instead. That won’t, on its own, fix global warming or un-pollute the oceans. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
And while we’re on the subject of plastic bags and pollution, I should point out that Westneat ignores some much more significant problems with plastic bags: They do make up a huge portion of the trash in landfills, and even recycling them is riddled with problems, the first of which is that the recycling process itself pollutes the atmosphere. What’s more, the production of plastic bags for American consumption alone requires an estimated 12 million barrels of oil a year. According to the Worldwatch Institute, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year—that’s throw away, not recycle. Most of those bags end up in landfills, where they take an estimated 1,000 years to dissolve. The rest end up in the air as lightweight, long-traveling litter that threatens wildlife (particularly sea life) and creates an eyesore; in South Africa, they bags are known as the “national flower.” ‘
So should we focus on other problems, as Westneat suggests—the ubiquitous plastic water bottles, perhaps? Absolutely. So will the Times, which cries “nanny state” every time the city proposes penalties behavior that’s bad for the environment, support a ban (or fee) on plastic bottles? I’m not holding my breath.