December 6, 2021

What to do about all of those plastic bags?

Nick Graziano/contributing photographer

Marathon resident D.T. Kisner loads groceries into the bed of his truck recently. Kisner recycles the plastic bags he gets from stores, but would not mind if plastic bags were banned, having seen them pollute the ocean.

Cortland County Legislator Paul Heider (R- Cuyler, Solon, Truxton) has delayed his plan to discuss banning single-use plastic bags in the county at the next Solid Waste Committee meeting because Gov. Andrew Cuomo is looking to ban the bags statewide.

“I really think it’s going to be pushed this year,” Heider said.

Cuomo announced proposed banning single-use plastic bags in early January after forming a plastic bag task force in March 2017 to find a solution to the statewide pollution caused by the bags.

“New Yorkers use billions of plastic bags annually, which do not biodegrade, creating massive amounts of litter in neighborhoods and waterways and posing a threat to the health of New Yorkers and the environment,” a news release from the Governor’s Office said.

Heider supports the ban, but would like to see it implemented over time so that people can adjust. His family is beginning to use reusable bags, but expects in a month to be able to forgo plastic bags entirely.

“We keep the reusable bags in our cars now,” he said.

By the numbers

• Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, using 12 million barrels of oil to make them.
• The typical American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic bags a year.
• Only 1 percent of the bags are recycled.
• Plastic bags kill 100,000 marine animals a year.
• Plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes.
SOURCE: Center for Biological Diversity

Bev Berry of Homer doesn’t support the plastic bag ban. She recycles them by lining her bathroom trash bin with it. However she does like reusable bags for carrying her groceries.

“The plastic tears,” she said. “I don’t think they need to be banned, but people should be more conscientious.”

Reusable bags are the best option, officials said. However, whether to go plastic or paper when you don’t have a reusable bag remains a debate.

Ivan Gitsov, a professor of polymer chemistry and chairman of the Department of Chemistry at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, said polythylene bags take decades to degrade. “They will degrade very slowly, if at all,” he said.

The bags can become airborne and get caught in trees, shrubs and fields.

The largest effect is not on land, but in the oceans, where the salt content causes the bags to degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, which fish can swallow.

However, plastic bags cause less environmental harm than their paper counterparts, Gitsov, citing a 2014 American Chemical Society report that single-use paper bags use 200 times more fresh water to produce; doubled greenhouse emissions; and used four times the amount of nonrenewable energy to recycle.

On the other hand, Gary Scott, a professor of paper and bioprocess engineering at SUNY ESF, said the answer to the debate can stem from the lifecycle of the two bags; paper bags are carbon-neutral.

The trees that make a paper bag have taken in carbon dioxide, Scott said, and if burned the carbon returns to the atmosphere for the next tree to use.

However, plastic bags are a made of oil, lying deep in the ground for millions of years.

The only way to make sure that material makes its way back to where it came from is by letting the bag degrade, Scott said. It takes about 500 or more years for a plastic bag to degrade and then they break down into micro plastics that absorb toxins and keep polluting the planet, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“They’re (plastic bags) around for a long time, but you don’t see paper around like that because when they get wet they start degrading,” he said.

Scott also said people shouldn’t fret over cutting down trees for the bags.

“We grow more wood than we use in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re in no way cutting them down as fast as we’re growing them.” However, the amount of trees globally has decreased 46 percent since the beginning of human civilization, shows a 2015 study called Mapping Tree Density at a Global Scale.

The study found that about 15 billion trees are cut down each year.

While D.T. Kisner of Marathon used plastic bags for his groceries Thursday — he recycles them — he said he fully supports a plastic bag ban for a switch to reusable.

“I’ve seen the Atlantic Ocean and it’s miles of plastic bags,” he said.