Published On: Thu, Aug 11th, 2011

Plastic shopping bags endanger our planet’s future

Six years ago I was invited to attend an international environmental conference in Anchorage — I was not an environmental activist and

knew almost nothing about the state of the world’s oceans.

Scientists there discussed acidification — oceans absorbing millions of tons of carbon dioxide that, when mixed with water becomes carbonic acid that destroys reefs and prevents tiny shellfish at the bottom of the food chain — including the salmon food chain — from making shells. They talked about “dead zones” — oxygen — free areas often found at urban river deltas where nothing can live — spanning hundreds and sometimes thousands of square miles. They described hundreds of thousands of tons of poisonous chemicals and garbage continuously dumped into the ocean. And they talked about the impact of plastics — including layers of plastic bags so thick that scientists sometimes couldn’t reach the ocean floor with their instruments — and birds, sea mammals and fish ingesting plastics that clog their digestive systems — their bodies biodegrading but the plastic remaining intact to be ingested by other animals. Plastic does not biodegrade. It is here forever.

They described their work as “documenting the decline.” If the degradation continued, they estimated 2050 as the ocean’s probable death.

In June of this year, international scientists met and were alarmed at the “exponential” increase of this decline. In a report to the United Nations, Alex Rogers, scientific director of the International Program on the State of the Ocean stated “The findings are shocking. … We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,” (Reuters–June 21, 2011.)

Their report to the U.N. was in newspapers across the nation, including the Anchorage Daily News. It was not mentioned in the Juneau Empire.

As a direct result of this conference, Turning the Tides was formed to help raise awareness about the state of the ocean and what ordinary people can do. We believed that, once aware, most people would want to know what they could do to help reverse the ocean’s degradation. We picked plastic bags because it is a problem that everyone can easily help to solve. The world uses about one million a minute and — figuring 400 bags a family, Juneau’s 13,000 families use over five million a year. Because of their horrible impact on ocean life, they have been taxed in cities and countries around the world and banned in over a quarter of the planet.

Taxes on plastic bags are shown to lower use by an average of 95 percent.

We are not suggesting paper over plastic. We believe that Juneauites, like people everywhere, can form the habit of using reusable bags. Until recently, most of the world didn’t have a “paper or plastic” option. People carried their own.

Humans cannot live without the oceans. In addition to supplying food and medicine, they provide at least half of the world’s oxygen.

Our future quality of life does not bode well if we can’t bring ourselves to contemplate changing even one small habit.

This is not an effort to increase Juneau’s Assembly coffers but a small attempt to add to efforts around the world to bequeath a livable planet to our children and grandchildren.

• Belcher is a Juneau resident and the founder of Turning the Tides.


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