Bag It, Or Not?

Contributed by Carol Montgomery, Plastics Committee of the Recycling Coalition

Sometimes known as tundra cotton or urban tumbleweeds, plastic bag litter is everywhere. Flapping in trees, tangled in the brush, clogging storm drains. Besides creating an unsightly mess, plastic bag litter actually kills some local animals who ingest it. 

No one knows exactly why caribou and reindeer are so attracted to plastic bags, but both the Williams Reindeer Farm and the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer learned this the hard way, after necropsies revealed plastic bag ingestion was the cause of death for several of their animals. Animals can’t digest plastic, so it accumulates and obstructs their digestive system.

The Experiment Farm is in a unique position to observe this problem directly. Surgically created fistulas allow researchers a direct portal into the digestive system of their research caribou. Dr. Bill Collins from DFG states that he continually pulls plastic bags out of the rumen of these caribou. Some wads of plastic in their gut are as large as a football! 

Bags continue to fly into local pastures throughout the year because the Valley is a windy place. In order to prevent further losses, The Williams Reindeer Farm in Palmer has to patrol their fields to grab plastic bags before the animals eat them. In spite of those efforts, the farm lost three more reindeer since 2010. We can only wonder what happens to caribou and other ruminants in the wild that do not have these protections.

Those bags that avoid being eaten by animals, or being snagged by trees end up in our watershed and eventually the ocean, where they create even more hazards for marine animals who like caribou, eat it in place of food. Another reason plastic continues to be so hazardous is because it never biodegrades, but just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of petroleum chemicals, soaking up other toxic contaminants, such as heavy metals in the process. Then it enters the food chain.

The smaller the particles, the smaller the animals are that feed on it. In 2015, a study in the Northeast Pacific Ocean found small particles of plastic in the plankton that salmon eat. They estimated that salmon were ingesting 2-7 particles of plastic per day just from feeding on the plankton. Who wants plastic in their salmon? I don’t think many people do.

All we have to do is look around at the environment to realize this problem is not going to go away, but will just get worse unless we do something. There are over 101,000 residents of the Borough. If each resident continues to use five plastic bags a week (a very conservative estimate), that’s adding 26,260,000 bags a year to our environment! If 3% get recycled, that leaves 25,473,000 bags per year that will either escape into our environment or take up valuable real estate in our landfill. And that’s just for one year!

One place to begin to solve this problem is to reduce the number of plastic bags we use. While recycling these bags is helpful, it is estimated that only about 3% of plastic bags are returned for recycling, and there are a limited number of recycled products that can be made from plastic bags. So think before you take a bag. Do you really need a bag to carry one or two items from the store to your car? An even better way to help out is to bring your own bag. Sturdy reusable bags have a greater holding capacity, are easier to carry and don’t flop around in your car. Once you get used to bringing your own bag, you will never want to go back to using these flimsy annoying plastic bags.

Many Alaskan communities already have regulations to control the damage caused by plastic bags. Cordova, Bethel and Hooper Bay have banned plastic bags, and many Alaska village communities have similar regulations. 

The Bag It Committee, a committee of the Matsu Borough Recycling Coalition is conducting a survey to gauge support for controlling the use of plastic bags here in the Valley. So far, 65% of those who took the survey were in favor of some sort of regulation, either a ban or a fee. 

We want to know what you think as well. Give us your opinion by taking our quick survey.