I have spent a great bit of energy in my life trying to avoid conflict. When there is animosity between people my stomach is upset, I stay awake when I should be sleeping, and I second-guess myself and my role in the disagreement. I sincerely want people to get along and when they don’t, I’m uncomfortable.
In spite of myself and my absolute desire for all people to be happy and agreeable all the time, I sometimes feel compelled to bring up a topic that might lead to some heated discussion. I promise, I don’t want a fight.
Why am I being so careful before I even get to the topic at hand? Why am I telling you all how much of a wimp I am when it comes to conflict? It’s because I see a problem and I’d like to figure out how to solve it, but after last year’s recall effort, I’m timid about bringing up an issue that has divided our community in the past.
But I wonder if it’s possible to talk about doing away with single-use plastic bags in Homer without people in town turning on each other. My hope is that we can put our differences aside and actually take on an attitude of problem-solving. We don’t need to fight about this. We just need to fix the problem, and sometimes that starts with asking some questions:
Are there really too many plastic bags? Are they really a problem? If so, are we as a community responsible for doing something about it?
There are plenty of facts that tell a stark story when it comes to plastic bags. Here are a few of the numbers that are most startling to me:
- Currently 100 billion plastic bags pass through the hands of U.S. consumers every year—almost one bag per person each day. Laid end-to-end, they could circle the equator 1,330 times.
- An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags.
- It takes 500 years or more for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately the bags don’t break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
- There is now six times more plastic debris in parts of the North Pacific Ocean than zooplankton.
These facts tell us that yes, there are too many plastic bags in the world, and yes, they are a problem. But what about that third question. Who’s responsible for doing something about it?
Most of us who live near Kachemak Bay depend on, or at least are concerned about, the health of our marine environment. And while it’s difficult to make the connection between the bags we carry our groceries in and the halibut we eat for dinner, the fact is that a lot of those plastic bags make their way into the ocean. Once there, humans can’t manage them. Nature breaks them down as best as it can, but it can only do so much. It can’t break them down enough to biodegrade.
Some would say that the problem is not with the plastic itself, but with how it’s disposed of, and it’s true that we should think carefully about what we do with the plastic items we use once we’re done with them, but to me it seems the bigger problem is in the production. Our most effective way to address the plastic problem is to use less of it.
As long as the manufacturers of single use plastic bags are making money, they’re not going to stop producing them. They’re going to keep churning them out to the tune of 5 trillion bags per year. And consider for a moment that every bit of plastic that has ever been made is still in existence today. It does not biodegrade. As long as we keep consuming plastic, it will continue to be manufactured, and as long as it’s being manufactured, we’re essentially stockpiling it. We’re seeing the negative effects of too much plastic already, but what will this mean for our descendants in 100 or 200 years?
If we care at all, and I suspect most of us do at some level, we should try to solve this problem. Not because we’re legally obligated, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Individual communities can collectively make a huge dent in the demand for plastic bags, which is a good argument for banning single-use plastic bags. But the banning of plastic bags is a topic that has caused a great deal of angst in Homer in the past. In 2012 the City Council voted to ban single-use plastic bags, but then a few individuals took issue with the decision and brought it to a city-wide vote to overturn the ban. The arguments got heated at times. People on both sides of the issue felt insulted by the other.
All of that happened and yet the problem of too many single-use plastic bags being used in our community was never solved. A few people felt vindicated by the fact that a government entity didn’t get away with telling them what to do, and maybe a few more people started using reusable grocery bags. But it did not solve the problem we set out to solve in the first place. As a community, we’re still contributing to the problem of consuming too many plastic bags that will never biodegrade.
Other communities around Alaska have made the connection between their actions and the problem of too much unnecessary plastic: Wasilla, Kodiak, Cordova, Bethel. They’ve all decided to be a part of the solution.
So where does that leave Homer?
Can we come up with a real solution to the problem of our consumption of plastic bags?
If we’re too timid to talk about a plastic bag ban on a city-wide level, is there a more effective way to get the job done?
I know the over-consumption of single-use plastic bags is just one problem in a world with too many problems to count, but it’s also one that seems solvable. It’s something we can do while we’re figuring out what else needs to be done. We can even do it while we’re doing other things!
Instead of fighting for our right to contribute to the problem, let’s be a part of the solution. Let’s talk about it. All of us. Let’s take an honest look at the problem we have. Let’s educate ourselves and look for effective ways to solve it individually and as a community. The issue of too many plastic bags in the world needn’t be controversial. It’s not about personal freedom or individual rights. It’s about making a correction.
We humans sometimes make mistakes, and then we have to figure out how to fix them. That’s all we’re talking about here.
How do you think the problem should be addressed?