As a result of our devotion to one-use plastic items, a continent-sized mass of plastic trash now swirls in the Pacific Ocean, trapped in a vortex between San Francisco and Hawaii.
This revolting mess, which includes disposable plastic bags, is twice the size of Texas and is estimated to weigh 3.5 million tons. Oceanographers describe it as a permanent fixture and report that the only hope for managing the damage lies in containment.
If this alarming fact does not capture your attention, please consider other evidence of harm resulting from single-use plastic bags:
■ Worldwide use of disposable plastic bags now stands at 500 billion a year, with that number expected to increase. Despite massive recycling efforts in major U.S. cities, only 2 percent nationwide are successfully converted into a secondary product. Experts consider the prognosis for improvement to be poor.
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■ Production requires petroleum and natural gas, both non-renewable resources that increase our dependency on foreign suppliers. Drilling for these resources threatens fragile ecosystems around the world, as evidenced by the massive oil spill generated last year by BP.
■ Annual cost to U.S. retailers is estimated at $4 billion. The cost of "free" plastic bags in stores is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.
■ An estimated 8 billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps and one-use containers enter the waste stream each year in the U.S. putting an enormous, unnecessary burden on diminishing landfill space. If these products are incinerated, air pollution results.
■ Americans discard 100 billion plastic bags each year. This is the equivalent of dumping the nearly 12 million barrels of oil required for production.
■ A million birds and 100,000 marine animals die each year as a result of ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic bags. Their deaths are frequently slow and painful.
■ Colorants in plastic bags contain lead and toxins. As bags deteriorate in landfills, these toxins leach into the soil and water supply. It is estimated a single bag can require 1,000 years to degrade, thus prolonging the process of environmental poisoning.
It is clear from the scope of this problem that we cannot afford to ignore the risks of continued dependence on disposable plastics. While the number of individuals taking voluntary action is growing, the current rate of manufacture and use continues to outstrip their efforts.
Despite the huge investment in public education about this problem, the state of California alone continues to spend $13 million annually to remove plastic bags from creeks and clogged storm drains.
Around the world and around our country, responsible communities are recognizing the need for civic action to contain the threat.
As Lexington continues its efforts to be recognized as a model city, I propose that we join other progressive communities in the forefront of this movement by considering policies to reduce our dependence on plastic bags and other one-use products.
A win-win solution is available in the form of a bag tax of 15 to 25 cents, which provides sufficient incentive for consumers to purchase environmentally friendly cloth bags. Collected fees represent an additional government revenue stream.
Ireland experienced an 80 percent reduction in the use of plastic bags after implementing its plastic bag levy, and this decrease has been sustained since the outset of the program.
For those who remain in denial about the extent of the problem, a brief tour of "Pacific Garbage Patch" videos, along with a review of the alarming research posted on the Internet, should rapidly dispel any misconceptions about the looming threat posed to the environment.
Until our local government can be persuaded to consider civic action, responsible merchants can have an impact by making inexpensive cloth bags available at check-out and verbally offering this choice as an option to plastic.
Also, they should ask customers if they need a bag before placing products in portable containers or single-purchase items in a plastic bag.
The stunning natural beauty of the Bluegrass is one of the primary factors that puts Lexington in the forefront of mid-sized American cities.
We have before us an opportunity for leadership and to stand out as a model city by demonstrating responsible stewardship of this irreplaceable gift with public policy.