The Pelagic Plastic Problem
The ubiquitous plastic bag can claim the dubious distinction of ranking among the most abundant types of marine debris In the world’s oceans, plastic bags slowly degrade into small pieces, take an unknown amount of time to mineralize, and harm aquatic life at all depths and in all stages of the degradation process. Whales, sharks, and sea turtles regularly ingest whole floating plastic bags, mistaking them for prey, while sea birds and fish indiscriminately feed upon floating plastic particles. Encounters with floating plastic can also result in entanglement, impairing the mobility of aquatic creatures. Plastic bags cause additional environmental harm when they settle on the sea floor, where they are known to smother sedentary flora and fauna, and thought to disrupt important hydrological processes. Despite the magnitude of the pelagic plastic problem, the continued manufacture and consumption of plastic bags is among the most easily addressed of contemporary environmental problems. This Comment focuses on plastic bags because the environmental harms caused by their mismanagement could be easily prevented. Prohibiting the use of plastic bags would require a relatively painless shift by consumers and have the effect of dramatically reducing environmental degradation. Plastic bags have negligible social benefits and significant environmental costs that are not associated with currently available and easily implemented alternatives. The abundance and reflexive use of plastic bags is thus a feature of contemporary society that can and should be eliminated. To prevent the environmental harms wrought by plastic bags, governments of all sizes are disincentivizing or outright banning the use of plastic bags. This Comment examines the environmental justifications and sources of legal authority for plastic bag bans to bolster the position of governmental units that have already passed or are currently contemplating the passage of plastic bag reducing measures. Part II lays out an argument in favor of plastic bag reduction. It first considers two of the practical realities that account for plastics’ environmental and economic harms—the difficulties associated with its disposal and its longevity. Next, it explains the environmental parameters of the problem, cataloguing plastic pollution’s adverse effects on the health and welfare of plants, animals, and humans. It subsequently summarizes the economic harms associated with pelagic plastic. Part III explores three possible categories of policy solutions to the pelagic plastic problem, all of which focus on the role that individual and industrial norms play in perpetuation of the problem. Part IV introduces some of the economic and social forces behind plastic bag use by describing the interests of the plastics industry and the disposable consumer culture that the industry has helped to create. It describes some of the tactics that these groups have used to oppose plastic bag reduction measures, and then touches upon the arguments and strategies that could be used to overcome this opposition.