Did you know that “every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they’ve been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It’s equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil” (Cemansky 1). What a waste! We must dramatically increase our recycling efforts and be far more aware of the need to take action to reduce our excessive use of plastic and paper products.
In middle school, we created a “recycling fairy,” a watchdog, who monitored you and made sure you recycled properly. If you ignored recycling guidelines, “she” would make you feel guilty and irresponsible for not properly recycling. Although this seemed corny, it greatly increased my awareness of the importance of proper recycling. I now put all paper in a blue recycling bin, take shorter showers, and complete as much of my homework and banking on my computer as possible. In my knapsack, I carry plastic bags in a special pocket to use when I need one, and am always reminding my parents to do the same. This is a small, but positive step, that’s simple to do. However, to see a dramatic difference we will need a strong awareness campaign and probably legislation to reduce our usage and dependency on plastic bags.
A number of communities, including my hometown of Westport, Connecticut, have already banned plastic bags due to their damaging effect on the environment. The impact of plastic waste is gradual, and often not readily visible. “According to the Marine Conservation Society of the UK it takes 450-1000 years for plastic bags to break down. Plastic in the marine environment never fully degrades” (Bushnell 1). In addition, “about 100,000 animals such as dolphins, turtles, whales and penguins are killed every year due to plastic bags. Many animals ingest plastic bags, mistaking them for food. And worse, the ingested plastic bag remains intact even after the death and decomposition of the animal” (Boland 1).
Consumers also need to understand that plastic bags can be re-used as long as they are recycled properly. “A plastic bag is thermoplastic, meaning it is capable of being repeatedly softened by heat and hardened by cooling. Plastic bags can be made into second generation products including durable building and construction products, door and window frames, exterior moldings, low-maintenance fencing and decks” (Wills 1). Recycled plastic requires less natural resources in the manufacturing process. Conversely, “when plastic is not recycled it ends up in the landfill with garbage or becomes waste in the environment. Without recycling, this ‘wasted’ plastic cannot be reworked and reused. It is estimated that it will take up to 1000 years for a plastic bottle or bag to decompose after it is buried in a landfill” (Susan 1).
Strong measures like increasing awareness of the hazards of plastic bags along with legislation appear to be our best hope of reducing these unintended consequences. The strategies of awareness and legislation seem to have proven their value in reducing smoking and drunk-driving. A suggestion would be to develop support among young families and local school systems that can be strengthened and expanded in the community and beyond.
It is shameful that “the U.S. is the #1 trash-producing country in the world at 1,609 pounds per person per year. This means that 5% of the world's people generate 40% of the world's waste” (Recycling Facts 1). With our standard of living, our business expertise and our willingness to embrace big visions, we should be leading in this challenge to make more productive use of our waste products.
Did you know that “in 2010, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash and recycled and composted over 85 million tons of this material, equivalent to a 34.1 percent recycling rate” (Municipal Solid Waste 1)? What does this really mean? Americans recycle 34% of their waste but do not recycle 66 percent. We are much better at recycling some products than others. “According to the U.S. EPA, 95.7 percent of automobile batteries were recycled in 2009” (Facts About Car Batteries 1) but only 12.4 percent of plastic products (Municipal Solid Waste 1). If we can do this with car batteries, why can’t we do the same with plastic products? We all know that statistics can be misleading in proving any hypothesis. However when you interpret the numbers, our recycling efforts are inadequate.
Plastic bags, plastic cups and plastic bottles are all too visible along our roadways, on the grounds of our parks and on our beaches. Why? Certainly people know that it’s bad for the environment. Is it that people don’t care? I prefer to believe that they don’t think about what they are doing. That’s why I think awareness joined with legislation may be the long-term solution. Awareness will create more consciousness of the benefits of recycling and legislation. However, a threat of fines for persistent violations will be the hammer to drive the message home.
Is this too far-fetched or heavy handed? Not if we are really serious about taking positive action to benefit our environment for the long term. We could all use a “recycling fairy.”