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Plastic Pollution Solution

By Deborah Campbell, Prince William County Solid Waste Division

Disposable plastic is an oxymoron.  Unless you burn it, plastic never really goes away.  Too much of it becomes pollution or litter. Plastic pollution clogs our waters and kills marine animals and other life. It even seeps into our bodies in chemical form.

We use lots of plastics. According to EcoWatch.com, 50 percent of the plastic used is used just once and throw away. We recover only five percent of the plastics we produce. Unfortunately, billions of pounds end up in the ocean where they harm marine life. (Bioloigicaldiversity.com)

Plastic is pervasive. It is everywhere—our eyeglasses, our phones, electronics, cars, toys, food service items, everything. However, there are several “disposable”/one-time use plastic items that we can easily use less of, or replace with reusable substitutes, such as plastic straws, plastic bags and plastic bottles.

Let’s focus on one-time use plastic shopping bags, with some ideas to reduce, reuse and properly recycle this potential plastic pollutant.

According EcoWatch.com, plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, but a single plastic bag has a life expectancy of up to 1,000 years.

Plastic bags are cheap, convenient and make carrying multiple items easy.   However, all those benefits can be found in reusable shopping bags.

Reusable shopping bags are inexpensive, fashionable, sturdy, and easy to use. You can keep a supply in your car trunk, purse, pocket or briefcase.  Reduce your dependence on one-time plastic shopping bags.  Replace them with reusable shopping bags and make a habit to have reusable bags on hand and use them.

Fashionable, reusable shopping bags

Even the most conscientious shopper, however, may forget a reusable bag from time to time. Think twice, though, before you accept a bag for one or two items, and don’t allow the cashier to double bag for a short trip.

According to Conservenow.com, 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide and 100 billion are used annually in the U.S.  An average family accumulates 60 plastic bags in just four trips to the grocery store.

Although prevalence of one-time use plastic bags makes elimination impractical, reduction of their use is definitely doable, if you are committed.

Reuse is another good idea.  Reuse your supply of plastic bags for shopping, trash can liners, storage, pet waste and clever craft projects. You can find lots of interesting ideas on the internet.

Finally, you can recycle one-time use plastic bags. Sadly, only one in 200 plastic bags are recycled (Conserve.com). However, proper recycling of plastic shopping bags is an easy way to make a big impact on plastic pollution reduction.

Too many people think they can put plastic bags in the regular recycling container with their bottles, cans and paper.  That’s not true.  Although the intention is good, plastic bags put into the regular recycling bin, does more harm than good.  Plastic bags get tangled in the equipment at the recycling sorting center. (There are two recycling center businesses located in the Prince William area.) This results in machine downtime, lost productivity and dangerous conditions for workers that have to dig out bags.

Plastic bags that are put into the regular recycling bin are not recycled.  Eventually, they make it to landfill where they blow around and cause a mess.  One-time use bags also pollute waterways, like local lakes, creeks, rivers and beyond.

To recycle these bags, take clean, dry plastic shopping bags and other plastic film like case wrap, produce bags, plastic wrap from paper products and food storage bags to a grocery store, big box store or other retailers that host a plastic bag recycling program.

composite wood chair
A composite wood chair

These materials are recycled and many are used to make composite lumber for decks and patio furniture, piping and other products. For recycling locations and more information on plastic film recycling, visit plasticfilmrecycling.org.

If you want to reduce plastic pollution/litter and help make our environment healthier, try these ideas and share them with your friends, family and neighbors:

  • Reduce your use of one-time use plastic bags. Replace them with reusable shopping bags instead;
  • Reuse your supply of plastic bags for trash can liners, pet waste and crafts;
  • Recycle plastic bags. Take clean/dry bags back to a local retailer with a plastic bag/film recycling program. Do not put plastic bags in the regular recycling container with bottles, cans and paper.

For more information about recycling and proper waste disposal in Prince William County as well as programs and services of the Solid Waste Division, visit pwcgov.org/trashandrecycling.

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