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Plastic alert from outer space

Published on December 16, 2007 under Plastics

Originally appeared in the Juneau Empire on December 16, 2007.

Sept. 19, 2006. High alert on the space shuttle Atlantis.

The crew had just spotted a mysterious object that had apparently fallen off the ship. Upon transmission of a photo to Cape Canaveral, the shuttle program manager, Wayne Hale, speculated: “The question is: What is it? Is it something benign? … Or is it something more critical we should pay attention to?”

To the relief and amusement of all involved, the particular object appeared to be “just a plastic bag,” most likely from the shuttle’s open payload bay, i.e. “something benign” and not “critical.”

Yet, whether plastic bags are benign or critical is very much a matter of perspective. The shuttle incident casts a daunting light on the thoughtless dissemination of plastic bags – they have reached outer space. This reminds me of the tongue-in-cheek bumper sticker, “Earth first, we will pollute the other planets later.”

Of course, the victory parade of plastic bags is first and foremost an earthly problem. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that 500 billion bags are manufactured every year. And they have become a worldwide problem threatening animal and human life. According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), it can take up to 1,000 years until the average plastic bag dissolves. UNEP estimates that plastic garbage kills one million sea birds, 100,000 seals and other marine mammals as well as countless fish each year, many by strangulation. Even polar bears are affected – currents drive plastic bags into the Arctic, partially because many seamen ignore the United Nation’s Marpol Convention of 1978, which prohibits the disposal of plastics at sea.

Ashore, however, resistance against plastic bags is shaping up. Both industrialized and developing countries are coming to the conclusion that the bags do more harm than good. San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags in supermarkets and large chain pharmacies. In Europe, fees on plastic bags have been successively introduced since the 1980s, and have led to a sharp reduction in the demand for plastic bags. For example, in the Republic of Ireland their use was cut by more than 90 percent. Now, more and more European communities are launching bans. In Great Britain, the 1,500-citizen borough of Modbury gave the kick-off. London is gearing up to follow – its landfills are overflowing. Eighty villages, towns and cities, including Brighton and Bath, have introduced or are considering a ban. Paris has banned non-biodegradable bags. Around the globe, fees or bans are springing up: in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Australia, Darjeeling, South Africa, Taiwan, Mumbai, Lijiang in China, and many Alaska villages.

During the last legislative period, bills calling for a 15 cent fee on plastic bags were introduced – Senate Bill 118 by Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, and House Bill 230 by Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau. Turning the Tides wholeheartedly supports these bills, and by the time the 2008 legislative period starts, we will make detailed information available on how to support the bills effectively.

The objective is to hinder the further wasteful and often mindless use of plastic bags, in an effort to save the earth, the ocean and their support systems on which our well-being (including that of future generations) depends.

Of course, the bills are only a start, but we have to start somewhere. A word to those who oppose the bills, on the grounds that it seems yet another way of big brother reaching into our pockets, imposing another infringement on our freedom: Ideally, no income will be generated from these bills. If they pass, it will be our free decision whether we want to spend 15 cents on a plastic bag or whether we want to bring our own bags and containers.

I know from experience how hard it can be to remember to bring a bag into the store. But humans have succeeded at much harder tasks – such as sending shuttles to outer space. If we all set our minds and hearts to reducing demand for plastic bags, we would be one step closer to walking gently upon the earth and leaving no footprints (on the planet or in space).

â Hildegard Sellner, Ph.D., is a council member of Turning the Tides, a Juneau grass-roots nonprofit working to promote environmentally friendly living and alternatives to plastics. To contact the group, call 907-789-0449 or visit