Plastic Bags Are Killing Us

Plastic BagsOnce upon a time, the “Paper or plastic?” question seemed like it could go either way. Choose plastic and you’re choosing something that may be stuck in landfills for hundreds of years. Choose paper and you’re sacrificing trees (“it takes 14 million trees to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used every year by Americans”). But it’s way more complicated than that. From an excellent article at Salon:

Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they’ve been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It’s equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil. … Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide.

The bags look like jellyfish to a lot of marine life. The bags that don’t get “eaten” become part of the flotsam that now clogs every square inch of the world’s now fully plastinated oceans (some sections of ocean now carry 6x more plastic than biomass).

more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from eating or getting entangled in plastic. The conservation group estimates that 50 percent of all marine litter is some form of plastic. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Despite the hopeful-looking recycling symbol on the side of most plastic bags, recycling centers can’t handle them – they bring most recycling equipment to a screeching halt. You’re better off bringing them back to the store where you got them.

“The only salient answer to paper or plastic is neither. Bring a reusable canvas bag, says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.”

Sadly, environmental incentives to get people to bring their own canvas bags shopping have never worked. But economic incentives might. IKEA now charges customers five cents per plastic bag, and donates the proceeds to an environmental working group. Fashion might work too:

Bringing your own bag — or BYOB as Whole Foods dubs it — is the latest eco-chic statement. When designer Anya Hindmarch’s “I am not a plastic bag” bag hit stores in Taiwan, there was so much demand for the limited-edition bag that the riot police had to be called in to control a stampede, which sent 30 people to the hospital.

Earthresource.org is running the Campaign Against The Plastic Plague.

6 Replies to “Plastic Bags Are Killing Us”

  1. Charging money for plastic bags is a shortsighted idea. 5 cents wouldn’t be nearly enough to convince people to switch on their own.

    To get people to change we need a good combination of convenience and force.

    The ideal situation that would meet these requirements would be for grocery stores to switch entirely to canvas bags and charge deposits per bag (say a dollar per bag).

    Right now a lot of stores sell canvas bags for ~$10 a pop. That system doesn’t work because the activation point for change is too high (money, time, convenience).

    If we replace paper and plastic bags with canvas bags, but give the canvas bags some of the qualities of paper/plastic (return what you don’t need and get your dollar back), we’re on to something. Get a consortium of stores to join the program and use/exchange each other’s bags in some sort of cost sharing program and we’ve solved the problem.

    Put together a plan, form a grassroots group, and lobby some local stores.

    Talk is cheap ;c)

  2. Good thoughts, Gilbert. I’d think the bigger stores could almost give canvas bags away. A meaty bag tax for canvas-less shoppers like the one you’re suggesting would subsidize the cost of the free canvas bags, not to mention the advertising component (having the store logo printed on every canvas bag). So the first canvas bag would cost you, say, $2. But if you show up the store without your canvas, you’d pay $2 for each bag used. People would learn quick to keep a few canvas bags in the car, so they’d never have to remember to bring one when leaving the house.

    Do we have a right to expect free convenience?

  3. I’d think the bigger stores could almost give canvas bags away.

    They could, but it would cost them too much money, or they would think it would cost them too much money. Remember, it’s just as important to make the entry point for stores as easy as it is for customers. Appeal to greed and self-interest! Telling anyone, “give this away for free” doesn’t work well. Also, you want people to return their bags, not throw them out when they’re done with them. A deposit increases the likelihood that that will happen. Have 10 grocery bags? That’s $20.

    A meaty bag tax for canvas-less shoppers like the one you’re suggesting would subsidize the cost of the free canvas bags,

    In this case, I think the negative incentive is more harmful than helpful. I think that the entire system needs to be set up to focus on the positive incentives so that the majority of people support the change. “Punishing” people too early or too harshly will lead to more bitching than pitching in. I’d work on eliminating paper/plastic completely from the system so that everyone has to pay a deposit to get a bag. If the stores won’t agree to that then you do have to tax paper/plastic, but I would make it something small enough to not hurt, but big enough to make one realize that the canvas bags are a steal at $2, say $0.50 per plastic/paper.

    not to mention the advertising component (having the store logo printed on every canvas bag).

    Absolutely. That would be a big selling point in any savvy grassroots campaign.

    So the first canvas bag would cost you, say, $2. But if you show up to the store without your canvas, you’d pay $2 for each bag used.

    This is where I see deposits working well. Forgot your bags? Get some more. Don’t feel bad/resentful about it because you can return them next time and get your money back. That’s great customer service and I’m saving the earth, too!

    People would learn quick to keep a few canvas bags in the car, so they’d never have to remember to bring one when leaving the house.

    Yes!

    Do we have a right to expect free convenience?

    There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TINSTAFL)

    There, in a nutshell, is an entire awful semester of college microeconomics. ;c)

  4. In SW Ontario, Canada where I live, the local grocery chain “Zehrs” (a division of Loblaws) has started selling canvas bags for 1$ and each time you use them, if you pay with the store credit card you earn points that you can redeem toward future groceries. I’ve seen more people using cloth bags since they’ve implemented this, so maybe the tipping point is nearer than we thought.

  5. In my opinion the best thing we can do is reuse your shopping bags, even they are made of plastic, of course canvas bags would be ideal because they are biodegradable, I use my Funtote for all the shopping and found it very practical, they have so nice and unique: http://www.funtote.com/catalog.html

  6. I’m glad someone thought this story was worthy of a post. In my opinion the best thing we should do is to ban the plastic shopping bags at all. There is alternatives and I’m pretty sure once the plastic bags is banned manufacturers will come with brilliant ideas. For example, plastic shopping bags are illegal in South Africa anyway because of environmental reasons and nothing happens so why we can’t banned it.

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