Banning Plastics in a Plastic City

August 3, 2012 | by Manasa Chandra

On July 1, Los Angeles County joined the small collective of cities that decided to ban single-use plastic bags.

In California, 40 counties have already banned plastic bags including San Jose, San Francisco and Santa Clara, with another 30 or so counties planning to enact this ban by the end of 2013.

Now, this is a big deal for a few reasons. First, the little plastic bags that we get at grocery stores are made from polyethylene, a derivative of crude oil. Seeing how Californians alone consume over a billion plastic bags a year, and national consumption tops 500 billion bags annually, you can guess how much this measure can limit the craving for oil.

In addition, millions of these bags end up in the ocean, and their artificial byproducts are destroying our ecosystem at a frightening rate. But we’ll get to that later.

Second, you may not have heard of it, but in the Northwest Pacific Ocean there is an ever growing collection of garbage called the Pacific Northwest Gyre. While plastic bags are not the prime reason for the accumulation of garbage in this area, they sure do add to the problem.

Plastic bags are designed to be mass produced using cheap chemicals. Translation: There’s little idea of the effect that these plastics have on the environment when in the ocean or landfills.

Because they are all made from synthetic chemicals, bags will not biodegrade (like a banana peel in soil). Instead, they will photo-degrade and slowly become smaller and smaller over time.

But the ocean is where the danger presents itself; sea turtles, birds and fish confuse these smaller particles of plastic with actual food. Again, because the plastics are synthetic, they will accumulate and kill the animal from the inside.

Wait, it gets better.

Structurally the chemicals in plastic bags mimic hormones and carcinogens (see bisphenol A in water bottles) and are used simply to make plastic stronger. These chemicals do not simply disappear when plastic bags are discarded in the ocean. They bioaccumulate quickly. That means the chemicals are amplified as you go up the food chain. So a small fish would eat contaminated materials and a larger fish eats two or three smaller fish and so on.

While at small concentrations the effect of these chemicals don’t really affect the animal, at larger concentrations, effects such as sterility and cancer can be seen, and even neurological symptoms have been reported.

Here’s the cherry on top: We humans are exposed to water that derives from the ocean and there is no purification of these chemicals. We also consume an overwhelming amount of food that may be exposed to these contaminants from irrigation water and seafood.

I strongly believe that our bodies, frighteningly enough, contain contaminants from these plastics. BPA and other environmental estrogens already have been found in breast milk of nursing moms that live in Long Beach in 2003. Environmental estrogens are chemicals that mimic human estrogen, have been shown to interrupt normal cellular processes and may be linked to cancer. In fact, mice fed with these chemicals have been shown to grow mammary tissues.

The biggest effect that we’ll see soon with the ban is that you’ll be charged an extra few cents for each bag you use if you forget to take your reusable canvas bag to the grocery store. That may not dissuade all LA citizens from using these plastic bags, but hopefully it will impact the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans and sea turtles — and our bodies.  

If you feel impassioned enough to spread the word and help protect our oceans, send me an email or check out Surfrider’s campaign to Rise Above Plastics.



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