|Grace Presbyterian Church’s Bag Mat Ministry created its own unconventional recycling method by crocheting plastic bags into 6-foot-by-3-foot sleeping mats for the homeless.
Cheap and convenient, plastic grocery bags are becoming an ecological threat to our oceans and waterways.
By Elizabeth Rose
Photos by Elizabeth Rose
July 11, 2012
An empty plastic bag left over from the grocery store sits in the back of a truck and flies out of the bed while driving down Johnston Street. It floats across the road for a few hours, and then an unavoidable summer downpour rolls through and the bag floats into a storm drain, where it travels to the Vermilion River. Eventually, it’s dumped into Vermilion Bay, where it drifts out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Eighty-six percent of ocean debris is plastic, and almost 80 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from land sources. In fact, Lafayette trash is more likely to land in an ocean because of its proximity to the Gulf, says UL Lafayette environmental toxicology professor Paul Klerks. “People don’t realize that if it ends up in the ditch here, especially close to the ocean, it can land in the ocean quite easily.” According to Greenpeace, plastic bags compose the majority of seabed contamination. The same plastics that are designed to resist wear and tear from everyday usage fail to break down after they are discarded.
|UL Lafayette environmental toxicology professor Paul Klerks in his lab at the university
Once the plastic enters a waterway, it never decomposes but instead breaks up into tiny pieces that fish, seals or turtles often mistake for jellyfish snacks, or birds mistake for fish eggs floating near the water surface and end up with a stomach full of plastic pieces. Once plastic enters the digestive system, it does not break down and clogs the animal’s intestines. Some animals may also feel symptoms similar to a stomach flu and then refuse to eat, resulting in death from starvation. For endangered species, especially turtles, plastic-induced deaths can make a large impact on already dwindling populations. “Any additional deaths that occur due to plastics, even if it’s only 10 percent of the deaths, it can still make a big difference on whether that species can survive,” says Klerks. “For those species, any extra insult they get can push them over the edge and plastic bags can potentially do that.”
Even for those animals that don’t ingest the plastic bags, they run the risk of becoming entangled in them. Seals and sea lions are especially susceptible to entanglement, and the errant bags or fishing nets and line can constrict blood flow to organs in the animals or physically restrict them from swimming, making them easier prey. “The plastic can cause drowning, starvation or just keep them from being able to swim,” says Klerks. “The pollutants that accumulate in plastics, if they are ingested, there is the possibility that they can become exposed to pollutants through that. That’s still being investigated.” If animals on the lower end of the food chain consume those contaminants, then larger predators could consume them. Those contaminants would then creep into the seafood in restaurants and grocery stores — which shoppers will take home in plastic bags.
UL environmental and sustainable resources professor Durga Poudel says plastic bags that remain on land don’t offer a better outlook. Plastics that make their way into soil alter the hydrology and water flow and disrupt the microbial population.
“Our [national] waste rate is 1,500 tons per capita,” says Harold Shoeffler, chair of the local Sierra Club in Lafayette. “Look at how many times we package things. A box of cereal is wrapped three times: a plastic bag inside a box inside a plastic [grocery] bag. How necessary is that multiple protection for an edible product?” Shoeffler asserts that plastic bags are a “poor second” to making paper bags from trees, but consumption habits wouldn’t be so detrimental if they matched recycling habits. “Look at where it’s landing — on the shores of our beaches, lakes and rivers.”
Often, shoppers are encouraged to bring reusable bags to the store instead of using disposable plastic bags. Los Angeles recently became the largest city in the country to ban plastic bags; Hawaii is the only state to have banned them outright. Louisiana’s ban is unlikely, considering plastic bags require crude oil and natural gas as raw materials. Lafayette’s Recycling Foundation doesn’t accept plastic bags because it requires 40,000 pounds of bags to make recycling cost-effective, nor are the machines equipped to sort them out without becoming clogged, according to the foundation.
However, Walmart, Albertsons, Super 1 Foods and Target all recycle plastic bags (if they are returned to the store), and many grocery stores offer small rebates — less than 10 cents — for bringing your own bags. The Internet holds countless lists of ways to reuse plastic bags for household chores, but Grace Presbyterian Church’s Bag Mat Ministry has created its own unconventional recycling method: crocheting them into 6-foot-by-3-foot sleeping mats for the homeless. “Each mat takes 500 to 700 bags,” says Linda Wamsley, who was directing 20 volunteers recently to flatten the donated bags, cut them into “plarn” (plastic yarn) cross-sections and crochet them.
So, the question changes: paper, plastic or reusable?
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