TOPSHAM — The wordplastic”is derived from theGreek“plastikos,” meaning “capable of being shaped or molded.” Plastics have been with us for over a century and have evolved into many forms.

The famous line “There’s a great future in plastics” appears in the 1967 film “The Graduate” – and, indeed, plastics have become ubiquitous and extremely profitable. Ironically, though, instead of being shaped, they now are shaping our world in ways that are harmful to our environment and health.

Though the durability of plastics has its advantages, at the same time, it poses a hazard. Plastic bags are made from petroleum, which entails the use of fossil fuels. Most plastics are not biodegradable, and they can last anywhere from 500 to a thousand years.

Eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans each year, according to a study published last year in Science magazine, and the U.N. has estimated that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of plastic. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans.

Plastic ends up in landfills where it can contaminate soil by leaching out harmful chemicals such as bisphenol-A, phthalates and flame retardants that can eventually make their way into waterways. Plastic photodegrades in sunlight and slowly turns into microscopic bits, which, unfortunately, marine life mistake for food.

Many species of marine animals have choked to death on plastic bags, which they perceive to be jellyfish. Each year, over 100,00 marine animals starve to death because plastics fill up their digestive systems, leaving no room for nutrients, or they die from perforations by shards of ingested plastic.

Plankton are at the bottom of the food chain, and the microplastics they consume get passed up the food chain. There have been reports of plastics being found in fish and shellfish on both the East and West coasts, as well as in the Gulf of Maine and the Mediterranean Sea.

With the help of wind, lightweight single-use plastic bags often escape and, like tumbleweeds, they end up in trees and waterways. It is estimated that 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean each year. They also clog storm drains and gum up machinery at recycling facilities. Only about 3 percent to 6 percent of them are recycled, and there is very little market for them. Soiled plastic bags end up in landfills.

On Nov. 8, Topsham residents will consider a local proposal imposing a 5-cent fee on single-use paper and plastic bags at checkout in food and convenience stores. This is not intended to be a penalty but rather a means of encouraging people to start bringing their own bags.

The bag fee has been well accepted in Portland and five other municipalities in southern Maine. Once the fee went into effect in Portland, the number of customers bringing their own bags to Hannaford’s Portland store rose from 10 percent to 80 percent, a supermarket spokesman told the Portland Press Herald last October.

If a customer buys four single-use plastic bags each week at 5 cents apiece for one year, the total cost would be $10.40. For the same amount of money, one could buy about five to 10 reusable cloth or treated plastic tote bags, depending on their cost, that would last for many years. I had a washable cloth bag that I finally had to retire after about 500 trips to the market.

The fees charged for single-use plastic bags go to the stores, and they can use them any way they choose. Should the 5-cent fee be a hardship for customers, Bring Your Own Bag is prepared to donate free tote bags.

Questions are often asked about why there is a proposed fee on paper bags. Paper bags are more expensive to manufacture than plastic ones, according to NBC chief environmental affairs correspondent Anne Thompson, who has also found that making paper bags creates 70 percent more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than making plastic bags. In addition, paper bags are more expensive to ship given their weight, less durable and often require double bagging.

It is easy to feel at a loss about the challenges confronted by our environment, but we can each take a small step. By choosing not to use single-use plastic and paper bags, we can make a difference.

Topsham residents will have a chance to vote on this issue Nov. 8, when the proposed bag fee will be on the local ballot (along with a proposed ban on Styrofoam food and beverage containers). For further information, go to