By Merry Maxwell
Thanks so much for taking on the very difficult task of trying to direct the community of Homer regarding use of plastic bags. When I read the letters to the editor in the most recent Homer Tribune, I realized how difficult this decision must have been for you. I am very proud of you all because Homer is a beautiful place and I presume most of us live here because of the beauty.
Fact is, if we want to continue to live in a beautiful place, a place rich with life, we must make some choices. Those appointed and elected (by the people) have to make difficult choices too, many times on behalf of all of us (for the people).
Many people have forgotten that we used to package meats in waxed paper and carry our groceries in cloth bags, baskets or boxes. We no longer do that because the use of plastics has become so pervasive in our culture. But there is a cost to this use. And, although some folks think they can solve the problem by recycling the bags, it is not that simple.
Plastics, even if recycled, will eventually break down into smaller bits. When broken down, those plastics can be particularly dangerous to animals, sea creatures and birds. Many animals and birds ingest small pieces of plastic, mistaking them for pieces of food. Others swallow bags, which can choke them or obstruct their digestive systems, causing death.
Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photo degrade. This process can take years and will cause a bag to break into small pieces that may never fully degrade.
In the Pacific Ocean, there is a plastic “island” known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is estimated to be as large as the surface area of the United States. Plastic garbage, including water bottles and bags, have been swirled together by the currents in the Pacific, creating this patch. I heard a fisherman tell a story a few years ago about seeing this patch and trying to determine the breadth of it. He gave up after a few hours of trying. It broke his heart.
Plastic bags have become a part of our culture because they are cheap to produce, sturdy, plentiful and easy to carry and store. Because of this, they have captured the grocery and convenience store market.
Instead of being used selectively, they are used for everything. Because of this, they are easily used and discarded. They blow down the streets, hang in our trees and drift on our ocean. They clutter landfills, too. Some estimates indicate that between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year.
Plastic bag litter has become such an environmental nuisance and eyesore, some countries have taxed their use or banned their use
outright. Several other regions, including England and some U.S. cities, are considering similar actions. Most stores in the Lower 48 offer a nickel or quarter to shoppers who bring their own bags to discourage the use of plastic … because it is the right thing to do.
I ran into a visitor from Belgium a few weeks ago while I stood in line at Safeway. She was extremely surprised to see that our community used plastic bags to carry our groceries without apparent regard for the ocean we live near. Closer to home, the ACE store on St. Paul Island uses paper bags, preferring to protect the fragile Bering Sea and the communities placed around it.
You should be very proud of the step you have taken. Let’s make it cool to carry reusable shopping bags and eliminate one small part of the plastic industries’ intrusion into our lives in Homer.
Let’s take responsibility for our lives and our place in the world. And thank you so much for your courage.
Merry Maxwell is a Homer resident. She works for the National Wildlife Refuge.
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