Committing to a completely plastic-free grocery purchase often overwhelms me immediately upon passing through the sliding doors. With practice, I have learned that it requires a bit of preparation, intention and avoiding the cheese aisle at all costs! Unfortunately, in the process, I become so hyper-aware of the plastic consumption epidemic that leaving with any sense of achievement is replaced by an ever-increasing sense of doom.
An Alaskan business owner once explained to me that "waste" is a mere concept we choose to believe and participate in — to him, waste simply does not exist. This idea seeped into my core. Yet no matter how much I work on eliminating my own personal waste, I choose to participate in a collective society that overloads one side of the consumption scale with seemingly little discourse. Thankfully, every single day provides me with the opportunity to represent my own ideals in hope of influencing a community to value individual responsibility and respect for the Earth and all its inhabitants above all else.
Committing to change a single consumer behavior has an extensive impact to the environment that we pass on to future generations. So today, I ask Anchorage to commit to these 5 Rs: reduce our consumption, reuse and recycle our goods, refuse single-use and excessive items, and rethink waste at every opportunity. So where do we even begin?
We must collectively commit to eliminate our reliance on disposable plastic shopping bags. We must change our customs and embrace the many simple, sustainable alternatives. Because, in truth, there is no such thing as a free plastic bag when you account for the cost it has on the environment.
It may surprise you that, as of today, many Alaskan communities already have written ordinances or unwritten commitments to ban plastic bags. They include Wasilla, Unalaska, Tanana, St. Paul Island, Soldotna, Sitka, New Stuyahok, Newtok, Louden, Koyuk, Kotlik, Kodiak, Galena, Fort Yukon, Hooper Bay, Emmonak, Cordova, Chevak, Chefornak, Bethel, Arctic Village and likely others. In addition, the Palmer City Council is working to pass a plastic bag ban.
Here are a few reasons why.
Worldwide, as many as one trillion plastic bags are used each year and less than 5 percent of plastic is recycled. In the United States, we use more than 380 billion plastic bags and wraps yearly, requiring 12 million barrels of oil to create. Although there are no reports specific to Anchorage's plastic bag consumption, if we apply a conservative estimate of four bags per resident per week, our community alone contributes more than 60 million bags per year into the waste stream.
Plastic bags take more than 500 years to degrade in a landfill. However, if they enter the ocean, they break down into millions of microplastic pieces that collect toxins and feed zooplankton, the lower trophic foundation of the marine ecosystem. This raises fundamental questions about potential risks to higher-level species. One concern is risk to salmon. Upon ingestion, these chemicals disrupt the endocrine system — the delicately balanced set of hormones and glands that affect every organ and cell in all animals — including us.
Plastic bags have no boundaries. Even when properly disposed of into our waste system, tiny gusts of wind displace them into the natural environment where they get trapped in trees and flow into our storm drains, which lead to our creeks and inevitably into the Pacific Ocean.
Plastic waste is contributing to massive die-offs and toxic contamination of seabirds, sea mammals and fish. For example, based on a study of more than 370 autopsies, one in three leatherback sea turtles have plastic in their stomach because the bags resemble the jellyfish they eat. Plastic blocks their digestive tracts, and the food that is trapped releases gases that render them buoyant. Unable to dive for food, the suffering turtles die slowly by starvation.
Moose, caribou and reindeer are dying from eating plastic bags. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, along with a couple of local Mat-Su reindeer caretakers, have documented cases and necropsy reports confirming that their animals are drawn toward ingesting plastic bags, which causes a slow and painful death by internal obstruction.
If you support an Anchorage plastic bag ban, please like the Facebook page: Plastic Free Anchorage. We will ask you to fill out a petition and share it with your friends. We will also keep you informed on the ordinance we have drafted and ask for volunteers. However, if you want to make an impact right now, start a discussion about waste elimination with your own family and friends and make a commitment today to the five Rs, even if that exclusively means you BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag).
If you are committed, on behalf of all the life that cannot speak for itself,
Sophie Tidler is a lifelong Alaskan, University of Alaska Fairbanks scholar, local engineer and volunteer for Anchorage Waterways Council and Alaska Long-term Care Ombudsman.