Janet Mills: Earth Day 2024 — Planet vs. plastic challenge

As we observe Earth Day 2024 on Monday with a focus on “Planet vs. Plastics,” it’s crucial to think about one of our biggest environmental challenges: the widespread use of single-use plastic bags.

While vacationing in Colorado, I was puzzled at first when I witnessed a woman in the Walmart parking lot uncomfortably juggling a jar of mayonnaise, canned goods and a bunch of bananas in her bare hands headed to the car. Later, upon checking out my own grocery purchases in the store, the reason became clear.

Colorado has passed legislation where chain grocery and convenience stores are prohibited from providing single-use plastic carryout bags to customers. Shoppers are expected to bring their own reusable shopping bags into the store to pack out their purchases.

We collect and recycle secondary use plastic bags for distribution of groceries at the food pantry. By the way, I encourage and welcome donations of used plastic bags at the pantry! We go through hundreds of plastic bags each month. It has given me pause to consider a few things.

How would the food distribution work without plastic bags? Where do the bags end up eventually? Are we willing to make the effort to substitute plastic bags for reusable ones?

These seemingly harmless items of our convenience and codependency have become emblematic of our throwaway culture. Plastic bags are actually a significant source of harm to our planet’s ecosystems.

Plastic bags, incorporated into our daily lives since their introduction to consumers in 1979, have undeniably contributed to convenience. Their environmental footprint, however, is staggering. In the United States alone, 380 billion plastic bags are used annually, requiring a substantial 12 million barrels of oil for their production.

The material used for producing these bags, low-density polyethylene, is derived from crude oil or natural gas which makes them non-biodegradable. Since they don’t break down naturally, they stick around for a long time, invading and polluting our environment.

Millions of metric tons of plastic trash leak into our natural spaces globally each year. This deluge of plastic waste not only harms wildlife but also pollutes our rivers, oceans, and landfills. It poses a threat to ecosystems and human livelihoods. Since plastic bags are manufactured with oil and gas chemical products, once they reach the water, they reduce down as microplastics.

The microplastics can then infiltrate environments spreading out everywhere. They can accumulate in the tissues of plants and animals eventually creating negative health outcomes. The toxic effects of plastic bags present risks to our human health and wellbeing.

A solution to this problem is far from straightforward. While bans on single-use plastic bags may reduce visible pollution, they come with their own set of challenges. Replacement materials such as paper, thicker plastic, and reusable bags may seem like viable alternatives, but their environmental impacts must also be scrutinized.

Studies have shown that the production of paper bags, for instance, requires significantly more resources than plastic bags. A paper bag must be reused at least 43 times to match the environmental impact of a single-use plastic bag used once.

The recycling infrastructure for plastic bags is complicated. Contamination renders a significant portion of collected plastics unusable. While some progress has been made in recycling initiatives, much more investment and innovation are needed to effectively address the problem at its root.

To tackle this problem, we need to look at the whole picture. We could use some smart rules that encourage eco-friendly practices, more investment in recycling, and new ways to make plastics that can be used again and again.

Changing how we act as consumers is also crucial. By using fewer single-use plastics and choosing reusable options, we can all help make a difference.

Earth Day should serve as a reminder of our collective responsibility to safeguard our planet for future generations. It is important to reflect not only on the environmental impact of our actions but also on the moral imperative to care for one another, as Galatians 6:2 reminds us: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Be reminded of our interconnectedness and mutual responsibility. Just as we are called to support our fellow human beings in times of need, so too are we called to protect and preserve the natural world upon which we all depend. This perspective challenges us to consider the implications of our approach to environmental stewardship.

We can consider not only the immediate impact of our actions but also their long-term consequences for future generations. In doing so, we are compelled to adopt proactive behavior and practices that take into account the well-being of all living beings, both present and future.

Janet Mills is the director of Cassville Pantry, located at 800 W.

10th St. in Cassville. She may be reached at cassvillepantry@gmail. com or 417-846-7871.