Since the early 1900's, the Transpacific Yacht Race has drawn sailors and adventurers alike to San Francisco, California, where they'll embark on a 2,225 nautical-mile long journey to Diamond Bay, Hawaii.
For Captain Charles J. Moore and his crew, their 1997 race wouldn't be much different than any other. Their journey home, however, ran a much different course.
He and his crew were making good time, so Captain Moore chose to sail up through a part of the ocean that most seafaring vessels avoid - a place called the North Pacific Gyre. When they reached the gyre, rather than clear ocean waters, they found a patch of floating plastic garbage the size of Texas.
If pollution is an environmental disease, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only one symptom.
There's more. Lots more.
- Sea Turtles, thanks ocean pollutants, are now at risk of extinction.
- Bisphenol A (BPA) leeches from plastics into water systems. This chemical has been linked to human neurologic conditions, brain cancer, and heart problems.
- Single-use plastic bags find their way back into the environment where they leech harmful substances and black drainage pipes.
The problems don't seem to end, and the consequences of our collective disregard for the environment is staggering. It's truly unfortunate we've even reached this point, and it seems like for every two steps we take toward limiting pollution, we take one big step back.
Fortunately, a recent ban on single-use plastic bags proves that we can still incite positive action through environmental policy. The lingering question, though: is the bag ban even making a difference?
Banning the Bag
It was in 2014 when California implemented their ban on the common disposable plastic bag. The bags were once used in abundance at grocery and department stores. Proposition 67, at inception, mandated stores to do away with the single-use bags and instead charge a 10 cent minimum for paper or reusable plastic bags.
The hope was these measures would encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags from home. This would, in turn, discourage the purchase of plastic bags at checkout and effectively reduce the amount of pollutants in circulation.
Proposition 67 led to the boom in sales of intricate reusable polyester or cotton bags. Printed on the side, shoppers could find anything from brand logos to trendy imagery. They then placed them near the checkout to be purchased for cheap.
The new abundance of these reusable bags has now caused shoppers to start treating them as disposable, rather than reusable. A poll by Edelman Bermand found that 40% of people admit to forgetting their reusable bags and choose to purchase new ones at the checkout. This might not seem like a big deal, but in order to offset the environmental impact of their production, recycled plastic bags require 26 uses, and cotton totes require a whopping 327.
If people are going to keep buying reusable bags and tossing out the old ones, are we creating another big problem? Maybe. Or maybe not.
Here's a few reasons to stay optimistic:
- Polls by StopWaste, a public waste reduction agency, show a decrease in single use bags.
They also show an increase in reusable bags and shoppers who opt for no bags at all.
- San Jose's Stormwater Management Report listed several promising outcomes for the California city
- 76% reduction in creek and river litter.
- 69% reduction in plastic litter in storm draims.
- 56% drop in park and roadside plastic bag litter
- In San Francisco environmentally conscious activists began making efforts to reduce their environmental impact - far before the Prop 67 ban.
The city measured an 18% reduction in plastic bag street litter from 2007 to 2009.
A Drop In The Bucket's a Drop Nonetheless
Preventing pollution is priority. There's no perfect solution to an environmental problem.
It's like fixing a leak with duct tape, or putting a band-aid over the holes in a sinking ship. Humans are infamous for creating new problems when we try to repair the existing ones. It would be ideal if we never had to fix them at all.
However, this doesn't mean we should just throw up our hands in defeat and our trash into the sea. Use and reuse the cotton bags. Hit that goal of 327 uses. Do your part to keep our home, the Earth, clean. Do it for her, and do it for humanity.
Here's a list of 50 Ways to Make Your Life More Environmentally-Friendly, courtesy of Biofriendly Planet, which is also a great source of information on environmental friendliness.
Although we might not be able to keep every drop of the ocean pristine, we can all play a part in the cleanup, because every drop counts.
Do it for the turtles.