In the classic film “The Graduate” there is that one memorable scene between Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ben, and Mr. McGuire, a business associate of his father as they briefly discuss Ben’s future in the world of “plastics”. The world of plastics has come full-circle since that cinematic prophecy in 1967.
Too few knew then what we know about this chemical “marvel” today that is intertwined in our everyday lives. From the food we eat, the medicines we depend upon, the cars we drive, the planes we fly and the furniture we entertain on, plastic has indeed become the future as Mr. McGuire predicted. But with it comes the problems it also entails; the problems that the plastics industry has been battling for years now.
Amongst these problems is the convenience by which plastic containers, with their durable light-weight composition in the form of bottles and shopping bags, have become too accessible for modern consumers who are always on the move and who have little time and regard for the waste product these become when the consumer is through with them.
- Of the 5.1 billion polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and jars available in the U.S. for recycling in 2009 only 28% were actually recycled. The rest go into over-capacity landfills which in 2006amounted to almost 30 million tons, or they wound up in the nearest bodies of water, allowing the PET to leach into the ecosystem that marine life feed off of. SOURCE
- Over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide with about 100 billion of those being used in the U.S. A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade and remain toxic even after they break down. Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. SOURCE
But according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC) there are advantages of plastic shopping bags that need to be impressed upon people. So anxious is the ACC to convey this information to the consuming public that they have lobbied to have this information implanted in our young people’s minds as a part of their environmental curriculum found in school text books.
According to a recent article by Susanne Rust of the California Watch group, “In 2009, a private consultant hired by California school officials added a new section to the 11th-grade teachers’ edition textbook called “The Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags.” The title and some of the textbook language were inserted almost verbatim from letters written by the chemistry council.” (emphasis mine)
“Although the curriculum includes the environmental hazards of plastic bags, the consultant also added a five-point question to a workbook asking students to list some advantages. According to the revised teachers’ edition, the correct answer is: “Plastic shopping bags are very convenient to use. They take less energy to manufacture than paper bags, cost less to transport and can be reused.” SOURCE
According to the article by Ms. Rust at least one state legislator, Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, is irate about the industries comments being slipped into public school text books without her being made aware of it. Sen. Pavley is the author of the 2003 legislation requiring that environmental principles and concepts be taught in the state’s public schools.
This is but one more example of where the private sector tries to assimilate it’s ideas into the public school system to act as a counter weight against the negative aspects of their products on human health and the habitats we all live in.
We will likely see more and more of this as corporate interests in this country work to push their image of being equal to real people, a perception that was recently strengthened by the conservative majority in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC. I cited a similar example by the fossil fuel industry’s’ attempt to make the increase of CO2 generated by our growing consumption of oil, coal and natural gas as more a benefit than a threat to the climate change extremes the world is seeing more and more of.
One solution for this issue, in California at least and any other state that wounds up using the text book with this industry provided information, is to challenge it directly with the facts in the classroom. By diminishing the assertions made here the industry may look even more foolish than had they left things alone and made their arguments separate from the public school curriculum.
Teacher’s can and should get their students to employ critical thinking skills to evaluate if there really are advantages of plastic bags mentioned by the ACC in contrast to the greater environmental hazards they pose? Let’s take a look.
- Plastic shopping bags are very convenient to use.
- They take less energy to manufacture than paper bags.
- They cost less to transport and
- They can be reused
Perhaps the greatest argument for using plastic bags is their convenience. But if we take a closer look we can see this argument is weakened by several factors. How inconvenient is it to avoid using a plastic bag when purchasing only one or two items? Choose paper bags where you have the option but only if they have been made from recycled materials and you fully intend to either recycle them after your use of them or hold on to them and reuse them several more times. 70% less energy is required to recycle paper compared with making it from raw materials, not to mention the tree life it destroys.
Better yet, buy the cheap fabric bags most supermarkets are providing to replace disposable bags. For the price of a dollar these bags can be used for hundreds more purchases and when you do dispose of them they are made of organic material that will decompose quickly also. Or go on-line and purchase EarthTotes. They cost much more but are more durable and will last almost a lifetime if not abused. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and the only inconvenience I experienced at first was remembering to bring these bags with me when I shopped. I started leaving some of them in the car for a while until it became routine.
The argument that plastic bags take less energy to manufacture than paper bags is something of a red-herring. Both use vast amounts of energy to manufacture so there is no win-lose option here. It’s like being asked if you prefer to be hit in the head with an 8 ounce ball pein hammer or a 16 ounce one. Since plastic bags take nearly 1000 years to decompose that means they can be used over and over. There’s no shame in bringing back your used bags to shop with except for those who see you taking such action and regretting they had not thought of this. Well perhaps thoughtful people. There will always be the ideological sluggards who will feel such sound environmental action is a conspiracy by latte’ drinking liberals
The same can be said about the lower cost of transporting plastic bags over paper bags. It’s a false equivalence because both of their uses pose a threat to the environment and in the case of plastic bags, they are more likely to kill toddlers and other creatures when improperly placed by adults.
And lastly, though the notion of recycling anything is a positive step to curb the ill-effects of our over consumptive natures, the economics of recycling plastic bags are not appealing. First there is the fact thatonly 5.2% of plastic bags are recycled. Then, according to the people at the reuseit.com website who research this information,
Recyclers would much rather focus on recycling the vast quantities of more viable materials such as soda and milk bottles that can be recycled far more efficiently. If the economics don’t work, recycling efforts don’t work.
For example, it costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32.
Due to the poor economics, the local market for recycled plastic bags is limited. There simply aren’t many manufacturers using the recycled material to make new products. This leaves the U.S. with a surplus of bags collected for recycling. SOURCE
Ultimately the good that plastics serve us are often the culprits of a far greater threat that is not as clear for most people who use them. The fact is, most people who are even slightly aware of the problems plastics pose for humans and their environs feel uncompelled to restrict their use of this petroleum-based product. To do so would be viewed as an interference with patterned behavior they are accustomed to. Unless there is a real and present danger they can see, most people simply don’t care enough to make necessary changes.
The American Chemistry Council is surely aware of this but the added insurance of a little subtle brainwashing while mental faculties are still developing for our children will aid in prolonging any wide spread enlightenment to the contrary. Our public school systems are being invaded more and more by the special interests of for-profit organizations like this whose practices, when fully exposed, could diminish their influence over consumers. Corporate CEOs and their powerful investors will not stand for this.