You may have noticed a new box in your dorm – one for plastic bag recycling!
Plastic bags are made of polyethylene – a crude oil and natural gas product. This means that the production of plastic bags has a HUGE carbon footprint. Over 12 million barrels of oil is used each year to produce plastic bags… which adds up to around 5.2 metric tons of CO2 annually!
But carbon emissions aren’t the only problem with plastic bags. Unlike most materials, plastic bags do NOT biodegrade. Instead, they undergo a phenomenon called photodegredation. When polyethylene reacts with light, it begins to break down into toxic particles called biotoxins. Not only do these toxins contaminate the soil and waterways (forming a toxic “Plastic Soup“), but they attract and bind to other toxins. Plants then absorb these biotoxins, and eventually animals will ingest them.
While humans can pick up plastic bag trash, it is not possible to clean up the biotoxins that have already formed.
Another serious issue with plastic bags is the ingestion of this waste by animals. More than 1 billion sea birds and mammals die each year from the accidental ingestion of plastic bags, and even more die from entanglement. Floating plastic bags bear a striking resemblance to jellyfish. Whales, turtles, dolphins, birds, and fish who prey on jellyfish can mistake bags for their food, and subsequently die a slow and painful death. Land animals die and obtain wounds from plastic bags too. This has huge environmental, economic, and human impacts.
One of the most visible affects of plastic pollution (including plastic bags) is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Due to wind and ocean currents, as well as the Earth’s rotation, garbage and other debris collects in certain areas of the ocean. Contrary to popular belief, this is not an island of trash; most of the debris is microplastics – small pieces of plastic. Plastics make up the majority of these garbage patches, and scientists have determined that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains 1.9 million plastic particles per square mile. Plastic biotoxins outnumber plankton by a factor of 6 to 1. The scary part is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only place that massive amounts of plastic are found in the oceans. Scientists believe there are at least five of these plastic masses. Unfortunately, because most of the debris is just particulate, cleaning up the waste is currently impossible.
Much of the larger plastic from these garbage patches washes to shore, in what some call the Great Plastic Tide. While difficult to watch, everyone should take a few minutes to view this video on the effects of plastics that have washed to shore. The plastic also encroaches on people’s homes and lives.
But don’t despair! You can help with this crisis by recycling your plastics! You can recycle most of your plastics, glass, aluminum, and paper products in the single-stream recycling at Dickinson. It is important to note, though, that plastic bags CAN NOT be put in the single-stream recycling! Due to the mechanics of the machinery that sorts the recycling, plastic bags can get caught in conveyor belts and gears, causing jams and damage.
Fortunately, Dickinson College and the Eco-Reps have found a solution to this problem. Plastic bags can be recycled in all residence halls, or can be brought to the HUB. From there, CSE takes the bags to Giant, who then sends the bags to TREX, a decking company. TREX presses the bags into plastic lumber – some of which is used to make park benches, like the one outside of CSE and DPS.