Where once the question at the checkout line was “paper or plastic?,” now it has become a question or whether or not to use plastic at all.
Last week, New York became the third state in the nation to ban the use of most single-use plastic bags by March 2020, following precedents set by California and Hawaii.
A group of Pennsylvania legislators have recently proposed a bill that would prohibit plastic straws from being distributed unless specifically requested and which would impose a small fee on non-reusable plastic bags.
“Single-use plastic tends to show up just about everywhere,” said Keep Huntingdon County Beautiful affiliate coordinator Logan Stenger. “It won’t break down in our lifetime. Some might break down in a couple of hundred years.”
Non-biodegradable items present a long-term problem for the environment as they remain substantially unchanged over the course of years, decades or even centuries.
“The worst ones are styrofoam items,” Stenger said. “Things like foam cups, bowls and plates never go away.”
The detritus left behind from everyday consumables inevitably accumulate along roadways, in forests and in and along waterways whether through intentional littering or accidental loss before the rubbish could be properly disposed of.
“We do see a lot of bags and trash, especially in our parking areas,” said Bert Einodshofer, state Game Commission information and education supervisor. “Just about anywhere people pull over, we’ll find their trash on a fairly regular basis in just about every parking lot.”
Plastic shopping bags tend to be easily lost as they are caught up in the wind or blown from a moving car.
“The problem with bags is that they are so light, they blow everywhere,” said Craig Garman, state Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) patrol supervisor. “You can even see them in the tops of 50-foot trees. Often, I don’t think someone intentionally threw them out. People can even throw them out in the correct place and the wind blows them out. I think that’s why states are looking at banning them. They are a problem, we do see them everywhere.”
While neither Einodshofer or Garman have observed direct negative effects of plastic bags on wildlife, animals like bears and skunks have been found with other types of disposable containers stuck on their heads after they tried to reach food remains inside.
“Litter is prevalent almost anywhere you see people; it’s just a matter of how abundant it is. Some highways might have a few items here and there and others might be loaded,” said Stenger. “Roads are a major hot spot because they are convenient. The trash tends to blow along roads or flow in waterways and might accumulate in one area. Litter isn’t just the single-use plastic, there are cans, containers and boxes, too.”
The aim in banning single-use plastic bags is not only to decrease the amount of trash accumulating in and out of landfills, but also to effect cultural change toward reusable substitutes for typically single-use plastic items.
“People use reusable bags and reusable water bottles. That might reduce single-use plastic, but even some of that is still plastic in a way,” he said. “But, by replacing single-use plastic, it reduces an individual’s usage.”
Stenger pointed out that preventing littering in the first place is of the utmost importance.
“The biggest key in reducing litter and single-use plastic use is education and outreach,” he said. “That way, more people learn to appreciate the environment and are less likely to litter.”