Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this column are that of the writer and do not represent those of the Daily Lobo.
In the North Pacific Ocean, there exists a vortex of debris and trash that is estimated to contain at least 80,000 metric tons of plastic. A report in March of this year in the scientific journal, Nature Research, suggests the amount of plastic pollution in one 1.6 million square kilometer section of the ocean is increasing exponentially.
This 1.6 million square kilometer section is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), and it is a microcosm of the effects that our society’s rampant growth and insatiable appetite for consumption have on our planet.
It’s easy for me to express my outrage at this display of humanity’s ruthless disregard for the natural world; however, a great deal of us see this as just another sound bite in the news cycle. The Pacific Ocean is a faraway place and one would be smart to wager that few desert dwellers are ever likely to see the GPGP firsthand.
We may feel angry in reaction to a National Geographic post on marine life mistaking microplastics for food, but our collective indignation often ends there. We may hang our heads in shame when we read that plastic in the oceans kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals each year, only to lose the fire in our hearts when our daily lives provide another distraction.
I propose an outlet in which to channel our fury, enact real change, and act as leaders for the rest of the country. Our passion must be harnessed, and there is a way to push back.
The time has come for New Mexico to ban plastic bags.
For context, the average life cycle of a lightweight plastic bag from a grocery store or takeout restaurant is 12 minutes. When its intended purpose has been fulfilled, it often ends up in the environment rather than being recycled or reused.
We see them in alleyways, clogging arroyos, blowing in the wind. Cacti swathed in shredded plastic have led to gallows humor proclamations from New Mexico residents that the yucca should be replaced by the plastic bag as the official state flower.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The worldwide movement to push back against this environmental blight began in 2002, when Bangladesh became the first country to institute a total ban on plastic bags. Since then, other nations began implementing various methods to phase them out. After the United Kingdom began charging five pence per single use bag in 2015, there has been an estimated 80 percent decline in their use. As a result of Denmark introducing a tax on plastic bags for retailers in 2003, the country has the lowest usage in Europe at four bags per person, per year.
The United States has been left behind by much of the developed world in this regard. It is intriguing how effective propaganda can be in the fight for a losing cause. In my research, I came across a cleverly titled website called Bag the Ban that encouraged me to “learn the facts” about plastic bags. My curiosity piqued, I read on.
Cleverly packaged with a sleek user interface and cherry-picked statistics, the website provided information about the advantages of American-made plastic bags produced from byproducts of natural gas. The author(s) (unknown) attempted to convince me that plastic bags are “the most environmentally friendly option at the checkout.”
I was warned that my chances of contracting salmonella will skyrocket if I don’t wash my reusable bag after every use. Anecdotes from (presumably) ordinary, working-class people appealed to my emotions. Jackie O. from Minnesota uses plastic bags to transport kitchen scraps to her compost bin. What kind of barbarian would take that away from her?
Thoroughly queasy after digesting the contents of the website, I scrolled to the bottom to see who was behind the curtain. Bag the Ban was brought to me by the people of Novolex, who self-describe themselves as “one of North America’s leaders in packaging choice and sustainability.”
Color me shocked.
I have no doubt there are many reading this column right now who were immediately turned off when the word “ban” entered the equation. “This is the land of free, we don’t need your Plastic Bag Manifesto.” To those I say: this is not a Marxist machination to slowly siphon away your freedoms. Society must evolve and adapt in order to survive, and our collective future is more important than your singular privilege to use a devastating and unnecessary product.
The time is long overdue where we must decide whether our allegiances lie with the unfettered destruction of the natural world and the spurious prospect of unlimited GDP growth or the environment that permits our existence. We cannot wait until 2025 for Smith’s to phase out plastic bags.
New Mexico has elected Michelle Lujan Grisham as governor. Grisham ran on a platform of environmental sustainability, and we must hold her accountable to her promises. We can be an example for the rest of the country if we have the courage to take the first step.
Andrew Gunn is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites.