Vail Daily letter: The problem with plastic bags |

Vail Daily letter: The problem with plastic bags

Tracy Andersen
Vail, CO, Colorado

Plastic bags are everywhere. As a former chemistry teacher, I appreciate the amazing durability of polyethylene, the polymer from which plastic bags are made.

However, the very trait we prize — durability — haunts us. Practically speaking, plastic doesn’t degrade (it does, but it takes about 1,000 years). Rather, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces.

These pieces are circulating en masse in the oceans and are having devastating effects on wildlife that mistake plastic for food, or get entangled in it and drown.

The seemingly harmless bags we automatically get every time we shop are neither harmless nor free. And the average American brings home 350 of them each year. The actual costs, including environmental and societal, for the convenience of unlimited, free, single-use plastic bags are high indeed. According to, there are, first, costs associated with producing plastic bags. Plastic bags are made from petroleum and-or natural gas products, finite resources which must be extracted and transported. Fossil fuels are also needed to transport bags to retailers, which generate greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change.

Second, there are the consumption costs. Retailers pay about $4 billion a year for the “free” plastic bags. Guess who pays for that in higher prices at the checkout counter?

Finally, society incurs high costs in the disposal of bags, and from their litter, which is pervasive. An estimated 8 billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps and sacks enter the waste stream every year in the United States alone.

When we throw our bags away, they wind up in landfills. Landfill space is dwindling and incineration produces air pollution. We pay the costs associated with hauling our waste, which again, requires energy and contributes to climate change.

As litter, plastic turns into tiny pieces that contaminate the soil and water and enter the food chain. Plastic commonly ends up in waterways and in the oceans, taking a heavy toll on wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating plastic bags they mistake for food.

Sad to say, recycling in not the answer to the plastic bag crisis. Plastic bags are difficult to recycle and cannot be processed in a typical materials recovery facility. When they enter a facility, they often get tangled in the machines and cause temporary shutdowns. The good news is that this problem has a relatively simple solution. By using your own reusable bags when you shop, you decrease the demand for plastic bags.

On April 26, the town of Vail is hosting a free screening of the film “BAG IT.” This often humorous film is a must-see for anyone who cares about oceans, rivers and their own health. “BAG IT” received five national film festival awards in 2011.

For more information, visit The event will be at the Donovan Pavilion at 6 p.m.

Tracy Andersen

Executive Director, Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability

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