Paper or plastic? It might seem like an insignificant choice to make when you’re checking out in a grocery store, but its effects can be massive. The bags discarded every year accumulate and they cause serious problems like ocean and soil pollution. In 2017, my hometown, Park City, became the first city in Utah to ban plastic grocery bags in an effort to cut down on littering. Plastic bag pollution is a problem all over the U.S.—in the Los Angeles area alone, 10 metric tons (more than 22,000 pounds) of plastic are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. On land and at sea, these plastics gather and become hazards for wildlife and have polluted waters as far away as the Arctic Ocean.
As if that’s not bad enough, plastic bags often end up in landfills, where they eventually break down into tiny bits that can easily blow into oceans and collect in storm drains that feed into bodies of water. This process can release toxins that contaminate soil and water, stunt plant growth, and make water undrinkable. Recycling could help reduce this problem, but often, recycling regulations make it difficult and expensive to sort and process different types of plastics. According to the PEW Research Center, only 13.5 percent of plastic bags were recycled in 2013.
The situation is perilous right now, but we can take some steps to promote positive change. One of the best tactics we have is to opt for reusable bags instead—something more shoppers will be pushed to do once there are more plastic bag bans in place. “It’s up to kids to be aware, speak up for less plastic in their communities, and educate their friends and families,” says Sharelle Rodman, co-founder of the Park City Plastic Coalition, which helped enact the plastic bag ban in Park City. If we can learn to prevent the problems that come with plastic, we’ll be taking a bold and important step to creating a better, safer planet.