As I sit in my office and look down West Main Street from my window, I can see a plastic bag caught high on the branches of a beautiful tree. It will stay there until a wind gust strong enough to rip it off will carry it on to its next destination. Plastic bags litter our landscape, pollute our harbors and bays, and kill or maim wildlife. They are touted as being “biodegradable” but no, not really. The cornstarch polymer which binds the plastic will degrade, eventually, but the plastic is forever. The plastic is simply small enough to not be seen. It is still in the environment. Judging by the amount of torn and filthy bags I see every day, the breaking down of the bags does not happen too quickly either.
Plastic bags have become a ubiquitous part of our landscape. No wonder, since 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide in a single year. Americans throw away over 100 billion bags a year. Many of them wind up in our streams, harbors and bays. Anyone who has participated in one of the beach cleanups (and by the way, the next cleanup will be held on May 5, so save the date!) has picked up bags, or pieces of bags from the beaches. Marine birds and animals can mistakenly swallow or try to swallow a bag, and choke. Other birds become entangled in them, and are maimed or killed.
Each square mile of ocean, on average, contains 46,000 pieces of plastic. Not all this comes from plastic bags, some comes from containers, toys, etc., but this is an unconscionable amount. No wonder marine animals are now being found, having starved to death, because they ate and swallowed minute pieces of plastic, rather than the nutritious plankton they thought they were eating.
I recently learned of another danger that plastic poses to sailors. At first, it seems preposterous to think that one bag can endanger a sailboat. A recent newsletter from Sailors for the Sea was describing the dangers posed by the “bag fish”. The newsletter recounted incidents which took place during a race in Miami. Moth sailor Anthony Kotoun said “Plastic bags can stop us faster than any other debris in the water, and when you are sailing at 20 knots anything you hit is dangerous.” During the event almost every sailor ran into a problem of having trash caught on their foil. For the moth sailor this is a timely incident. To remove the trash they flip their boat or stop and sail backwards. Plastic bags have also proved to cause more serious problems than losing a race. Moth world champion Bora Gulari seemed to have the worst luck with the bag fish, his first run in caused his rudder to rip off. A second incident, with an unidentified culprit, caused a severe crash where he ran into his shroud, cutting his face and requiring medical attention. Seeing as bag fish were everywhere, they seem like the #1 suspect.”
Yet another reason to not use plastic bags! Here in New York the Towns of East Hampton and Southampton and the City of Rye have all imposed bans. All of us can reduce our dependence, and take reusable bags with us on shopping trips. The environment will thank us!