Will That Be Paper or Plastic?? 
How a simple consumer choice can be friendly or devastating
 to the environment 
By Stephanie Barger 

 

You’ve purchased your organic vegetables, skinless chicken breast, and oatmeal soap. The grocery cashier asked “Will that be paper or plastic?”   You reply,  “Plastic please”. 

This seems like a simple enough question and plenty of reasons we choose plastic: easier to carry, less expensive to the grocer, lighter than paper bags so possibly less damage to the environment, reused as garbage bags, because it’s the “in” thing, because we have a choice. 

There are many differing opinions on plastic versus paper. So at Earth Resource Foundation, a local environmental nonprofit, we decided to take a firsthand look at what happens when the consumer chooses “Plastic.” 

We will follow the travels of three plastic bags. It begins at the grocery store with the consumer’s choice. The first bag is filled with a third of the product that a paper bag can hold, so two more plastic bags join the first. These three plastic bags are taken home and usually deposited right into the trash can.  Later that week, they are placed outside in the larger trashcan waiting for the trash haulers. 

Plastic Bag #1: The waste engineers come by and pick up trash. As they are lifting the cans into the truck, the first paper bags falls out or blows out before they arrive. It sits in the alley for a couple of hours until a car comes along and whisks it down the road. Then a little gust of wind blows it across the intersection, then another car, then another gust of wind and finally it makes its way to the beach. The little plastic bag gets caught by the incoming tide and is dragged out to sea. Water fills the bag making it look like a jellyfish. A seal swims by thinking it looks very interesting and takes a bite out of it.  Too late, the seal has already swallowed and there it will sit in the seals’ stomach for months, maybe years.  You see our marine animals do not realize that plastic bags aren’t natural.  Our animals have been living for thousands of years in a world where everything is edible. 

Plastic Bag #2: This bag does make its way to the landfill. The bag gets dumped out of the truck into the landfill area. Before they have a chance to cover up the thousand of pounds of daily waste, a strong Santa Ana wind comes up and blows thousand of plastic bags out of the landfill and down the valley. Once the winds die down, workers are sent out to collect the thousands of bags strewn around.  But they can’t possibly get them all. So our little bag continues its adventure getting caught in trees (suffocating plants), eaten by birds or worse used to line their nests, and making its way into our lakes and rivers. 

Plastic Bag #3:  The last bag also blew away but was caught and replaced into the landfill where it sits for years and years, as all the landfill is wrapped in an even larger plastic bag making natural degradation of the material almost impossible.  There are leach and air lines which does let the matter inside escape the big plastic bag. Although the landfill operators do a tremendous job to make sure no pollutants enter our water and air system, some does.  And guess what, plastic bags are made from petroleum products, a hazardous waste material, which in one way or another makes its way into the environment. 

Another problem with even putting plastic bags in our trash is our Orange County landfills are estimated to be filled by 2020. Which means no more places to dump all our plastic bags. More importantly, since we are running out of land to build homes, you might have the pleasure of one day living on top of your plastic bag! 

The best suggestion is to not use a bag at all (for smaller purchases) or bring your own cloth bag.  But if you must, please use paper.  The majority of paper bags now made from recycled paper do biodegrade, are not suggested but can be eaten by animals, and there are more opportunities to recycle paper than there is plastic. It does take a little extra effort and thought, so please have a thought about the little seal or dolphin the next time you say,  “Plastic Please”. 

Adopt-Your-Neighborhood an Environmental Empowerment Program
We at Earth Resource Foundation know the barriers most people face in trying to help the environment:  access to environmentally-friendly products, availability of recycling centers, nonexistent or inaccurate environmental education, understanding why stores even offer plastic bags, etc. 

Earth Resource’s mission statement is: Empowering the general public with the resources they need to make environmentally-sustainable choices and changes. Our “Adopt-Your-Neighborhood” program does just that at the grass-roots, your front door, level. Neighborhood Captains gather their neighbors together for a social event (pancake breakfast, etc.) to discuss what is needed in their neighborhood. Once the needs are determined, the neighborhood chooses an activity that focuses on their issues from the Neighborhood GuideBook.  There are also other activities that help them better evaluate their connection to the environment. Some of the activities are:  Gutter Patrols (keeping trash and pollutants from entering our storm drains); Nature Watches (Surveying all the native plants and animals in your neighborhood); using natural cleaners, fertilizers and pesticides; The Watershed Connection (education on what a watershed is and the importance it plays in our economy, environment, and California life-style.) 

The Adopt-Your-Neighborhood program not only helps protect our natural environment, but also encourages neighbor interaction, social and civic responsibility and land planning. This is important as preserving the environment effects every part of our life: from clean water and air, to unpolluted beaches, to edible fish, to healthy children, to places to unwind and relieve the stress. You can make a difference today by starting an Adopt-Your-Neighborhood program. 

Bike The Back Bay to Adopt Your Watershed Get Involved Today 
On April 21, 2001, Earth Resource Foundation will host its second annual Bike The Back Bay to Adopt Your Watershed. The bike-a-thon is an opportunity for neighboring communities and families to meet and work together to raise money and awareness for the Adopt-Your-Neighborhood program.  Over 1,000 noncompetitive bicyclists and walkers will tour the Newport Bay. A naturalist, biologist, and geologist will provide participants a fun and informative education on the past, present and future of the Newport Watershed.   The participants will end their ride at the largest Earth Day Fair in Orange County hosted by the Newport Bay Naturalist and Friends. 

For more information contact any of the wonderful staff and volunteers at Earth Resource Foundation, 230 E. 17th Street, #208, Costa Mesa, CA 92627,  (949) 645-5163 or at:   www.earthresource.org 

Remember, we are here to help you make the correct Choice to protect and save our Mother Earth!


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