Scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory today announced they have for the first time…
Some people think it’s imperative to keep a flashlight in the car. Others never leave behind an umbrella. For NIU geology professor Melissa Lenczewski, it’s reusable bags.
You won’t catch her without cache of totes at the ready.
That’s because Lenczewski, who directs NIU’s Institute for the Study of Environment, Sustainability, and Energy (ESE), does everything she can to avoid using single-use plastic carry-out bags. And she has spent considerable time educating students on the topic as well.
Issues surrounding use of plastic bags have come to the fore recently, both in Illinois and across the nation. To ban or not to ban, that is the question.
In Chicago, aldermen voted to ban plastic bag use by chain stores beginning in August. In Arizona, state lawmakers went in an entirely different direction, passing a law that actually prohibits municipalities from imposing bag bans. Meanwhile, California has a statewide prohibition on plastic bag use (as well as a paper bag tax), but it also will have a referendum to repeal the ban on the November 2016 ballot.
So why are the nearly weightless wisps of plastic so controversial? Free (at most stores) and easy, plastic shopping and grocery bags make life a little more convenient, right?
“There are problems with all plastics,” Lenczewski says. “But because plastic shopping bags are given away for free, they become more pervasive in our environment.”
Each year, Americans reportedly throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags. Many of those bags ride the wind and pollute our environment, blowing down streets and through backyards like tumbleweed before snagging on a rose bush, clogging a drain pipe or sailing down a local stream, thus endangering aquatic life.
And that’s just one chapter in the long life of a plastic bag. There are problems right from the beginning.
“First of all, they’re made out of plastic,” Lenczewski says. “The manufacture of most plastic requires use of oil or natural gas, so there are issues associated with oil and natural gas extraction. Most people don’t think of the carbon dioxide emissions that go into the production of all these bags. Then they are used one time and thrown away. It’s a very inefficient way to use energy.”
Not all plastic bags become nomads of our roads, fields and streams; most wind up in landfills, where they also can cause trouble.
“Plastics don’t degrade very quickly,” Lenczewski says. “And traditional landfills are actually designed to stop decomposition of all trash. When there are buried layers of plastic bags, they can slide against each other and contribute to slope failures resulting in landfill cave-ins or landslides.”
But she says there isn’t a perfect solution available yet for consumers.
There is no simple and efficient process for plastic-bag recycling. Reusable bags can become receptacles of bacteria if not thoroughly washed. Meanwhile, paper has its own environmental drawbacks—manufacturing paper bags creates greenhouse gas emissions and uses up forest resources. Compostable shopping bags (made with starch molecules between plastic molecules) require industrial composting centers.
The best option, Lenczewski believes, is the reusable and washable tote.
“I have a variety of bags that I carry, including some that were made for me as gifts,” Lenczewski says. “And when I go into a store for an item or two and they try to hand me a bag, I say, “No, thank you.” We don’t always need a plastic bag.”
By the way, Lenczewski says, Americans could save themselves money while helping to protect the environment by curtailing use of plastic water bottles and paper napkins, too.
But that’s another story.