Monday, November 05, 2012

Why the Coop Should Stop Providing Free Plastic Bags

When people think about the environment, attention may first turn to such topics as endangered wolves, declining forest acreage, or climate change.  Plastic may not even make the list.  Yet the Environmental Committee has found that our overuse of disposable plastics constitutes one of the most harmful actions humans take against the environment.

Our awareness of the massive ill effects of plastic use, gained over years and with much research, coupled with discovering how relatively easy it is to change our plastic behavior, drives the Environmental Committee's proposal that the coop stop providing plastic bags on the shopping floor.

Below  is a statement of why we, as a cooperative, should stop supplying ourselves with plastic bags for food.  The reasons come under four headings:  health, environment, social justice, and financial.

The health implications of combining food and plastic result from the leaching of estrogenic chemicals, the most common endocrine disruptors, from almost all plastics, including those marketed as BPA-free.  When plastic bags or packaging hold foods, escaping chemicals get into food and eaters.

One study performed a "fresh foods intervention" (participants ate nothing canned, or packaged in plastic), demonstrating a startling reduction in BPA (down 66%) and DEHP (over 50%) in their bodies in just days, confirming that plastic food packaging is a major source of these potentially harmful chemicals.

Estrogenic chemicals produce many health problems , including disturbed reproductive capacity and increased rates of some cancers.  Fetuses and the young are most at risk from exposure to estrogenic chemicals.  It is known that estrogenic chemicals alter cell structure and function.

The FDA's  approach has long been to allow low levels of estrogenic chemicals in foods when a single dose is not considered harmful.  Scientists, however, have learned that the effects of these chemicals are cumulative, the but FDA still does not consider cumulative exposure, nor does it consider how interactions of multiple chemical additives affect the body.

Furthermore, the petrochemical industry is not required to disclose ingredients of the plastics that touch our food.  And  many of the chemical plants that rank high in carcinogenic emissions do plastic recycling or production.

In summary, there are known serious health consequences associated with some ingredients in plastic food packaging.  We can't know which chemicals are in which plastics; this information is not disclosed to consumers due to US trade secrets laws.

The environmental devastation caused by our plastic is immense and multi-faceted.  Manufacturing disposable plastic, made from non-renewable natural gas and petroleum products, is unsustainable.  More plastic was produced in the first decade of this century than in the entire twentieth century; we're drowning in it.  Our oceans and wildlife they once "supported are also "drowning" in plastic.  Just as plastic has health consequences for humans, the plastic trash clogging the oceans poisons the water and kills wildlife.  While a plastic bag will "break down," no longer be a bag, the tiny shreds and bits of plastic continue to exist, leaching and bioaccumulating toxins.

The hope that the environmental havoc caused by plastic can be solved by recycling is misinformed.  Glass and metal break down into natural constituents; plastic cannot.  Glass and metal thus can be recycled; plastic cannot.  The best outcome of so-called plastic "recycling" is re-use plus delaying the inevitable deposit of that plastic into soil or water.

Social injustice as it pertains to plastic means poverty-stricken people with little political clout or financial means are harmed by our indulging our plastic habit.  Our overuse of plastic has more concentrated negative effects on people living and working in areas where plastics are manufactured, recycled, or trashed, than it does on others.

In urban dumps in South America, endless mounds stuffed with trashed plastic and food waste, homeless children scavenge for scraps to keep from starving.  In plastic recycling yards in Asia, again, children are working amid the chemical stench to turn our plastic bags into some new plastic item.  These places, ugly result of our plastic habit, are not safe.

Toxic air, water, and soil, and a high cancer death rate are typical of places like Cancer Alley, LA, where petroleum refineries and manufacturing plants are concentrated.  Closer to home, people in the South Bronx, exposed to most of New York's trash and recycling, suffer from some of the highest asthma rates and cancer  risks in the city.

The financial benefit to the coop of not providing plastic bags will be annual savings of almost $23,000.  The argument that there will be more theft if the Coop phases out the bags doesn't hold up.  The Coop, like most retail establishments, already has a theft problem.  This needs to be addressed, but plastic bags are not the solution.

Consider also the larger financial picture.  Who gains from our plastic habit?  Those who extract petroleum products, and the manufacturers/suppliers of plastic.  Who loses?  Everyone else:  those whose food touches plastic, people who live/work in plastic-industry areas, wildlife, the planet.

What, then do we have?  Plastic, an unsustainable petroleum product largely unnecessary for food packaging, when manufactured and used in current huge quantities, undermines human health, poisons the environment by releasing toxins into soil, water, and air, kills birds, turtles, and other wildlife, and pollutes oceans, city streets, and indeed the entire planet.

Are these consequences an acceptable cost to pay so that we don't have to remember to carry bags with us when going shopping?  Resoundingly, NO.

Please support the Proposal to Phase Out Plastic Bag Rolls, and, if you haven't already, examine and then reduce your own use of "disposable" plastics.  The proposal enacted will be a small but meaningful step toward improving our health, our environment, the well-being of people who live or work in plastic producing or recycling areas, and the society we live in.


This article restated the main points supporting the environmental committee's Proposal to Phase Out Plastic Bag Rolls .   The article also appeared in the 11/1/12 Gazette.


3 comments:

Martín said...

Now, if the article instead talked about charging our members for each new bag they used - I would heartily support this idea! I think that people need a disincentive to use a new bag. If more people used bags the way I do (and we "penalized" people who were egregious in their bag use) we would be able to make a dent in new bag use (this would make everyone happy, no?) This shouldn't be controversial to anyone you've sent this to. It won't be easy to implement (almost nothing is at the coop), but it will be worth the effort spent if we could find a way to do it unobtrusively.

I don't buy the "even BPA free plastics leach estrogen into food argument". For the amount of time that a head of broccoli is stored in a bag, in a refrigerator, I just don't see it happening. The bags we use take a very long time to disintegrate (this is not a net-positive unless you reuse it!) and therefore they don't immediately start transferring their molecules the first chance they get. The major time of transfer is when the plastic is heated, and educating people about this danger is outside of the scope of this email.

I realize that its hard to like plastic bags when they've been branded as un-environmental. I remember that during my childhood (for a brief moment before global warming theorists got any attention) the biggest environmental danger was a full landfill. Some countries and municipalities spent a lot of time and money on "clean" incinerators. In light of global warming, this was the least "environmental" solution possible! So while it sounds like a no-brainer to get rid of plastic, you have to look at what would happen without it: more food waste, more energy spent on food transportation, more energy wasted on packaging that can't be reused. So I propose evolving our plastic usage, not abandoning it in favor of something that's ultimately more harmful.

Martín said...

The repeated assertion that our plastic roll bags come from petroleum is true. However our bags are made from a by-product of extracting natural gas. The other option for disposing this particular by-product of natural gas is burning it. If we could somehow reduce production of petroleum products by reducing bag usage, that would be one thing. But producing a plastic bag, to me, is preferable than burning the by-product and immediately turning it into carbon-dioxide (thus immediately contributing to global warming).

Here's why we're better of turning that by-product into a plastic roll bag:

Its estimated that 40% - 50% of food produced by farmers is wasted instead of eaten. I read this 5 or 6 years ago in an article in New Scientist about the carbon footprint of our food (getting it from the farm to our mouths). Plastic roll bags are extremely light and extremely good at preventing waste (they keep produce from spoiling as quickly, they keep grains dry, not moldy, and edible until we're ready to eat them, and I'm sure they do a good job in many more ways). Their "lightness" contributes directly to energy savings during transportation (burning petroleum products). The energy required to manufacture them is extremely low. Some study done in Europe (sorry I can't be more specific when siting studies) said that you'd have to use a cotton bag for over 300 days to recoup the energy spent to manufacture it. When I tried to use muslin bags at the coop, they fell apart in a matter of months - guaranteeing that I'd NEVER recoup the energy spent to manufacture it. I think you had to use the plastic bag for a week or something to break even on the energy put into manufacturing. Which, by the way, I do! I, like many coop members, have a bag of bags that I use to shop with. When possible I forgo using a bag all together (like if I'm buying apples, pears, oranges, onions, etc.) and when I need a bag (like for rice, flour, sugar, beans, etc) I reuse a bag that I've brought with me. Once in a while I forget to bring old bags, or don't have a bag in good enough condition; then I take a new one.

Judy said...

Martin, thank you for your thoughtful contribution to the discussion of this important issue. Please accept my apology for delayed response: long walk/bus commutes this past week post-hurricane ate up all free time. A few thoughts:

We agree on the need for a disincentive. The Environmental Committee's proposal is simply that the coop stop providing free plastic bags on the shopping floor. It does not prevent reusing plastic bags (or even bringing in new ones from elsewhere, if an individual so chooses). By removing easy free access, our proposal does provide a strong disincentive. Your idea of selling might also provide disincentive, if done right. Our committee's previous explorations of the selling option did not arrived at a way to do this that would work in the coop.

One point of discussing the fact that plastics leach estrogenic chemicals is to suggest people consider the cumulative health effects of multiple exposures over time. Neither you nor I have sufficient information to say whether a single exposure takes minutes, hours, or weeks to occur. We can "thank" the total lack of transparency regarding plastic ingredients, courtesy of US trade secrets laws, for our inability to answer this question.

Your and my experiences with reusing plastic vs cloth bags are very different. I use both, and find the cloth bags much longer-lasting. And they're repairable. Awhile back, when my dedicated quinoa reused plastic bag split, dumping quinoa all over the shopping floor, I decided it was time to increase my cloth bag count. I continue in the direction of more cloth, less plastic. Some of my cloth bags have been in frequent use for three years; I've never had to retire one, unlike with the plastic bags.