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Paper vs. Plastic? Once the newest fad, single-use plastic bags are being phased out due to changing times, customers and concerns

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Paper vs Plastic

Single-use plastic bags can take up to 500 years to decompose, which is one of the reasons why the House Ways and Means Committee is considering a bill that would ban the bags in Massachusetts.

‘Plastics.”

That one word is No. 42 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most quoted movie lines.

It comes from the 1967 film “The Graduate.”

A middle-aged character named Mr. McGuire, played by Walter Brooke, asks another character, Benjamin Braddock, a 21-year-old, newly minted college graduate played by Dustin Hoffman, to consider entering the plastics industry.

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word,” Mr. McGuire says to Benjamin. “Are you listening?”

“Yes, I am,” Benjamin says.

“Plastics.”

There was money to be made, a lot of it, Mr. McGuire explains.

“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it? ” he asks Benjamin.

“Yes, yes I will,” Benjamin says.

That, most likely, was a lie.

The movie was made 52 years ago, the same year famous for the “Summer of Love.”

The nation was being ripped apart by the Vietnam War, hippie culture was on the rise and rock ‘n’ roll dominated the air waves.

The sons and daughters of The Greatest Generation were in revolt. They were rejecting the peace, quiet and conformity their parents craved after living through a war that drenched the world in blood.

We don’t know what eventually happened to young Benjamin Braddock except that he got the girl he loved at the end of the movie; in fact he stole her out of the arms of another at a posh, stereotypical wedding, and the couple took off on a derelict bus headed for parts unknown.

It’s doubtful the couple was heading for the plastics industry.

But a lot of other people did.

Fifty years later in 2017, The Business Research Co. reported the global market for plastic products was worth $1.1 trillion.

That’s a lot of money.

Young Benjamin, who would be old Benjamin now at 73, would likely be sitting on a pile of cash had he taken the advice of his well-meaning, middle-aged mentor in that summer of clashing cultures.

And no doubt there are those who are sitting on a pile of cash generated by what became our world’s unquenchable thirst for plastics.

So much of what we all use is made of some type of plastic, or has plastic parts.

However, the industry has also generated more than cash, it’s generated trash, plastic trash, trash that never goes away — at least not in the lifetime of a human or even generations of humans.

In 2017, a writer for discovermagazine.com, Nathaniel Scharping, wrote about a University of California-Santa Barbara study which found that between 1950 and 2015, 9.1 billion tons of plastics of various kinds had been produced around the world.

Scharping translated that mega number into simpler terms.

He computed that it equals the weight of 25,000 Empire State Buildings, 80 million whales or a billion elephants.

Shortly before Benjamin was being nudged toward the wonderful world of plastics, one of those products, which now tortures the landscapes and seascapes, had just hit the market.

According to an article published by rutanpoly.com in 2015, the plastic bag, the ubiquitous, omnipresent thin-film bag that blows along highways and byways, gets caught in trees, blocks street drains and kills whales, was introduced to the world in 1965.

It was invented by Sten Gustaf Thulin, a Swedish engineer.

No doubt there were good intentions. The bag was sturdy, lightweight and cheap. It was waterproof and had handles. The bottom was not susceptible to falling out when wet.

And, according to an article on factorydirectpromos.com, the single-use, thin-film plastic bag was first introduced to the U.S. market in 1979.

In 1982, two of the nation’s biggest supermarket chains, Safeway and Kroger started offering them as a choice with the words “paper or plastic?”

At first the bags were slow to catch on, writer Shane Shirley said. But that didn’t last long.

“All that changed in 1985, when a speaker at a convention for the Society of Plastic Engineers spoke about how inexpensive single-use plastic bags were compared to paper bags,” Shirley said. “Single-use plastic bags almost immediately began showing up at grocery stores all over the United States.”

Paper vs Plastic

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year.

Today, few if any retailers ask, “paper or plastic?”

It’s plastic all the way.

The consequences

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which requires 12 million barrels of oil to make.

In addition, the average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year and, according to Waste Management Inc., only 1 percent of plastic bags are returned for recycling.

That means that the average family only recycles 15 bags a year; the rest end up in landfills as litter, according to the website.

One of the most stunning statistics is that each bag is used for an average of just 12 minutes.

Making something that’s only used once for 12 minutes could be considered insane when coupled with the fact that the bags don’t disintegrate for 500 years, after which they become microplastics that continue to pollute the environment, according to the organization’s website.

Oceancrusaders.org estimates that there are 5.25 million pieces of plastic debris in the oceans and that 100,000 sea creatures and 1 million sea birds a year die from entanglement or ingestion after mistaking them for food.

That, too, is a high price for 12 minutes of use.

Even if those estimates are cut down by 50 percent or more, the numbers are still staggering.

What’s being done

The U.S. is behind many other countries in addressing the problem.

Denmark was the first nation to regulate the use of plastic bags in 1994 with a tax that reduced usage.

All told, according to reuseit.com, 32 nations across the globe have bans in place, including, of all places, China, which is usually considered the world’s worst polluter.

Mexico has a partial ban and taxes in place, as does most of South America.

On the continent of Africa, 14 nations have bans or taxes in place to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags.

In the U.S. only three states — California, New York and Hawaii — ban the bags.

But state Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro, said Massachusetts could be next, thanks to a bill pending in the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I think it will pass soon,” possibly in September, he said last week.

But if for some reason it does not, towns and cities across the state have taken action on their own to regulate the bags, whether through a ban or tax or some other measure.

The Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club said 121 out the state’s 351 municipalities, representing roughly half the state’s population, have taken a stand against the bag. They include Attleboro, North Attleboro, Plainville and Mansfield.

MassGreen.org has the number at 122.

The Attleboro ban, initiated by Mayor Paul Heroux and approved by the city council in January on a 9-1 vote, goes into effect Oct. 1.

Part of the reason Heroux pushed for it, in addition to environmental concerns, was that the bags end up in recycling bins where they don’t belong.

The bags clog equipment run by the city’s recycling company, Waste Management, which could cause the company to increase fees to the already cash-strapped city.

What one supermarket chain is doing

Like the other big supermarket chains, Kroger and Safeway, Stop & Shop began using plastic bags starting in the 1980s, as did most retailers in general, Stop & Shop spokeswoman Amy Thibault said by email when asked about her company’s history with the bag.

“As for when we began using plastic bags, retailers, including Stop & Shop, began using plastic bags widely in the mid-1980s to early 1990s because they were easier to carry, stronger and less expensive,” she said.

But the company has changed with times.

“Today, we better understand the environmental impact of single-use plastic bags, and are always looking for new ways to reduce our environmental footprint,” Thibault said. “At Stop & Shop, we share our customers’ concerns regarding the environmental consequences of plastic waste and are actively working on ways to reduce our impact as a brand.”

Paper vs Plastic

Supermarket chains started using single-use plastic bags in the 1980s, but are now shifting toward reusable bags, like these at Stop & Shop.

She said Stop & Shop and parent company Ahold Delhaize have “removed more than a billion plastic bags from the waste stream” and are part of the “New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.”

“Alignment with this commitment means that by 2025, all our plastic packaging will be fully reusable, recyclable, or compostable and that we will have eliminated unnecessary single-use plastics in favor or reusable alternatives,” Thibault said.

She said the company actively encourages customers to use reusable bags.

Stop & Shop will donate a dollar from the sale of each “Community Bag,” which costs $2.50, to a local nonprofit of the customer’s choice as an incentive.

(For more information go to https://stopandshop.bags4mycause.com/)

“We encourage all of our customers to utilize reusable bags since it is the most sustainable choice for transporting their groceries,” Thibault said.

And to come full circle...

Plastic in all its forms is crucial to the way we live today.

Few dispute that.

It’s part of so many products everyone needs and uses, but the unintended consequences created by these products have been devastating.

Some are trying to reverse that.

Like Benjamin Braddock, Andrew Cooper, 28, and Alex Schulze, 27, perhaps didn’t know what they wanted to do when they graduated from college 50 years ago.

But if that was so, the avid surfers who grew up in Florida found the answer pretty quickly in that one word Mr. McGuire used to hopefully guide young Benjamin — “plastics.”

But unlike Benjamin, no one encouraged them to go into the plastic making industry.

They instead, on their own, created a business that strives to clean up the mess the plastics industry has sadly left in the world.

On a surfing vacation to Bali in 2015, the recent college graduates were stunned by the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean and decided to do something about it.

That’s when they founded 4Ocean, which is based in Florida.

Anyone who watches television has seen their ads.

They pay people to strain tons and tons of debris, much of it plastic from parts of the world’s oceans and to sift it from the beaches.

Their employees use boats with fish nets and walk the sand by foot and pick trash by hand.

Then they manufacture bracelets from the waste and sell them for $20 each to fund the company.

This year the duo was honored by Forbes magazine in its annual feature that honors “30 people under 30” years old who have made significant contributions in their fields.

Cooper and Schulze were recognized as “Social Entrepreneurs.”

Newsweek magazine hailed the men as members of the “Creative Class of 2019” and last year, Surfer Magazine honored them as “Agents of Change.”

Newsweek said the company has sold $30 million worth of bracelets to fund the for-profit company and pay its workers.

That’s 1.5 million bracelets woven from plastic and glass removed from the ocean.

The company’s motto is “cleaning the ocean one pound at time.”

Since 2017, workers have removed more than 5 million pounds of trash from the seas, according to the 4Ocean website.

A digital display on the website constantly updates the exact number of pounds which have been removed.

At some point Wednesday afternoon the number was 5,224,541 pounds. It’s gone up since then.

4Ocean spokeswoman Rachael Lobeck said the company currently has 300 employees removing trash, mostly plastic, from the ocean in Florida, Indonesia (Bali) and Haiti (Port-au-Prince).

But it intends to spread its mission, she said.

“We plan to open other international operations and expand the cleanup operations,” Lobeck said in emailed comments to The Sun Chronicle. “One of our main focal points is in education and awareness. The more we educate people on why to say ‘no’ to single-use plastics and bring awareness to ocean plastic pollution, the closer we’ll get to a solution.”

Lobeck said it’s easy for individuals to help.

“Refusing single-use plastic is a massive step in the right direction to a solution to ocean plastic,” she said. “Whether it’s a plastic water bottle, plastic straw or plastic shopping bag, replacing these with one that can be reused is key to stopping the ocean plastic pollution epidemic.”

So in sum, and to quote Mr. McGuire again…

“Think about it. Will you think about it?”

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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