(Editor's note: A numerical error in the last paragraph of this article has been corrected.)
One million single-use plastic bags are used globally each minute — one trillion every year. Most are used for 20 minutes but last for hundreds or thousands of years.
They never biodegrade but continue to leech their deadly chemicals into our water, land, and air. They kill and trap hundreds of thousands of animals and birds annually. They plug drains and sewers, causing floods. They are part of massive garbage islands in our oceans, described by some oceanic scientists as “toilets that won’t flush.” That is the toxic brew in which our seafood exists.
The plastics industry would have us believe that recycling plastic bags is a simple answer to these problems. But think again. Most recycling centers don’t want them. They jam machinery, costing time and money. And despite their light weight, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says that in 2016, 382 million pounds of plastic bags and wraps were deposited into Minnesota landfills. That’s 70 pounds per person — more than any other material collected.
Only a small percentage are recycled; estimates range from 2 to 10 percent. Many people are not aware that the bags must be clean and dry with any zip locks removed to be accepted for recycling.
Even then, countless bales of plastic bags sit, unsold, at many recycling centers. With the low price of oil, most manufacturers prefer to purchase virgin plastic — it’s often less expensive and cleaner than the recycled product. Those bales will end up in landfills for the next thousand years, contaminating our water, soil, and air.
As a nation, we ship tons of our garbage to other countries, where poor people, without protection from pollutants, scavange for anything salable. But in 2013 China rejected much of our garbage because it was too dirty. Now India receives huge shipments of it; garbage mountain landslides have suffocated workers and their children.
Made from petroleum, those bags contain Bisphenol A, an endrocrine disruptor that can affect the reproductive development of children. Phthalates, another family of harmful chemicals, are found in virtually every plastic product including food wrap. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control tie these chemicals to a vast array of potential health problems especially among pregnant women and children.
The Minnesota Legislature needs to think through the ill effects of plastic both at a state and global level before it makes a monumental decision to stop communities from passing plastic bag bans. If Minneapolis and Duluth want to do the right thing by banning plastic bags, they should be commended and not stopped.
Bans are taking place all around the world as the deadly results of our throw-away society are washing up on beaches in the form of dead whales with stomachs full of plastic.
Even here in our landlocked area, dogs have died from ingesting plastic bags, and a loon, our mystical State Bird, was trapped in a plastic bag on the Mississippi River, unable to fly.
Plastic pollution is a tragedy that circles the globe but one that has local and state repurcussions. If you understand its longterm consequences, please contact your legislator.
Some 120 million plastic bags have been used in the last two hours since I began writing this commentary. They will outlive our great, great, great grandchildren — a legacy we can all be ashamed of.
Patricia Helmberger is a freelance journalist and chair of Earth Circle’s Reusable Bag Committee of Grand Rapids, Minn.