Charlie Rolsky Counters the Claim Made By John Tierney in the Wall Street Journal

“Plastic bags help the environment” – According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, by John Tierney. While catchy, it’s also wrong … just as blaming others (fishing industry, other countries, etc.) and pointing fingers at their plastic usage is not a good way to address the situation, especially since we are still producing and throwing away tons of plastic every day.

But how could plastic bags possibly help the environment, you ask? Let’s see what they have to say.

  1. Don’t blame plastic bags, half of all littered plastic comes from fishing boats
  2. Don’t blame the US, 86% of plastic waste comes from Asia, most of the rest from Africa and South America
  3. Recycling plastic is inefficient
  4. Plastic bags are a “marvel of environmental efficiency”
  5. The bags sit in landfills and do not degrade, thus avoiding the release of greenhouse gases
  6. Plastic bag bans don’t work

So there you have it, plastic bags are good for the environment!

…except they aren’t and virtually everything in this article is wrong.

  1. Polluted plastic comes from land-based sources including coastal recreational activities and spillage of raw manufacturing materials. It also comes from wastewater effluent, weather-related events relocating the trash, AND ocean-based sources. The leading source of plastic production is packaging so putting most of the blame on fishing boats is wrong and inaccurate.
  2. While other countries might produce more plastic than the US, much of that plastic finds its way to shelves in our own stores. Again, deferring the blame to others does nothing to solve the problem. Plus the US still produces a whopping 37 million tons of plastic every year.
  3. This is the one point I will agree with and this has been known for some time. Most plastics are down-cycled into items of lesser value due to characteristics we have discussed previously (hyperlink to other blog). This does not mean we should abandon the process, there are promising solutions within our reach.
  4. I fail to see how a dead whale washing on shore with 40 kilograms of plastic bags in its stomach is a good thing. Many, many studies have shown the harmful effects these bags have on the environment, both as larger plastic items and upon fragmenting into microplastics. Single use plastics should be a thing of the past.
  5. Plastics bags do degrade, both in the environment and within the bodies of animals which have ingested them. They can also release chemicals like phthalates as they break down. Plastic bags are also capable of being swept out of landfills via wind or other weather-based interactions, so if we expect them to stay fully intact within landfills, we’re kidding ourselves. Think also about how one single bag representing millions of potential microplastic once degraded. Here, they can wreak all sorts of new havoc on ecosystems and the species therein, including us.
  6. Again, this is not true, bans and taxes on plastic bags are more than capable of working. Tunisia, Kenya, Rwanda, Nepal, there is a long list of countries which have successfully implanted a ban or tax which resulted in a decreased usage of plastic bags. Reusable shopping bags oftentimes have a very long life and are made of more sustainable materials. So bans and taxes can work and they have for some time.

Always follow the facts, folks, and realize we are all to blame for plastic pollution increasing as much as it has. And while recycling is not as efficient as it can be, much of that is on us as well and there is reason for hope when it comes to plastic repurposing and replacement.

Charlie Rolsky is Director of Science, North America, for Plastic Oceans International. He is also the host of “Breaking It Down, With Charlie Rolsky” – a new YouTube series from Plastic Oceans that simplifies the science, while having a bit of fun. He conducts research at Arizona State University’s (ASU) Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering where he works on marine and aquatic plastic pollution, a major concern within many ecosystems and environments around the world.