Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Global Warming Wednesday: Bagging plastic bags

I remember when plastic bags were first introduced at grocery stores. Being a budding environmentalist, I was concerned about the impact all that plastic would have in landfills. As a nod to my concerns, my parents continued to use paper bags. Flash forward a couple decades (and a bit), and those plastic bags are ubiquitous. Buy something at nearly any store and you will most likely be handed your purchase in a plastic bag. There are a few places, primarily grocery stores, where you can still get paper bags if you ask—-though to be fair, the number of trees and energy required to produce paper bags will give a person pause. And so there is no clear answer to the question, "Paper or plastic?"

To my mind, however, plastic bags remain the greater evil. And I’m not alone. More and more places—cities, countries, continents*—are taking action to limit the number of plastic bags in circulation. Ireland has been a leader in this area. While they haven’t outright banned them, customers must now pay for each plastic bag they use, approximately $0.15 US per bag. Not a lot individually, but that adds up over time. This has led to a decrease of approximately 95%. Now, it is true that more garbage bags are being purchased (who hasn’t used those plastic bags for small garbage cans?), so the net amount of plastic being used may not have decreased by much. But even if there is an increase in the number of garbage bags produced and purchased, those are more likely to make it to the landfills.

Think about how often you’ve seen a plastic bag blowing along in the wind, caught in a tree, trampled down in a gutter. Consider how these bags might affect wildlife that swallows or becomes entangled in them. Now imagine the difference if 95% of these bags simply didn’t exist.

IKEA is taking a similar approach to the use of plastic bags in several countries now, having begun to collect (or announced an intention to collect) a premium for each plastic bag a customer uses. This has been the case for about 9 months in the UK; the nickel-a-bag charge in the US** begins tomorrow. This is not about making extra money either; proceeds from the bag charge will go to an environmental group and they’re hoping that they will be able to wean customers off one-use bags entirely. IKEA is the first company to institute such a charge in the US, but this may be the start of a trend.

San Francisco is currently considering a ban on plastic grocery bags. If you read the fine print, it’s not a complete ban; nevertheless, it targets the largest grocery chains and would create incentive to invest in compostable plastics. This is, of course, mired in city politics right now, concerns about compostables mixed with recyclables and vice versa, money issues, etc. But maybe this will light a fire under other like-minded communities.

If you hadn’t already guessed, this is headed towards my new action for the month, which I will address in whole next week. But if you read through some of the above articles, you’ll notice that even more than compostable plastics and paper bags, the answer to the issue of how to get your stuff home is fairly simple: reusable bags. But as always, that may be easier said than done. And I’ll look at that a bit too next week.

*OK, a bit of an exaggeration. In Australia the banning of plastic bags is still limited to cities. But wasn’t that a great use of alliteration and a tricolon?

**Up here in Canada, I’m feeling a little left out. Charge us too!


kgirl said...

we've pretty much banned the bags at our place. there is absolutely no need for them whatsoever. for about a buck a bag, you can get the biggest, strongest reusable shopping bags from highland farms - they're my fave, but any canvas bag or basket is good.

what bugs me is that the grocery stores are paying lip-service to this trend, and that's about it - most offer no incentive for using your own bags (sorry, loblaws will discount your bill 1c. for each bag you bring - way to go galen!), nor do they offer any training in how to pack the bags properly so as to use them to their maximum efficiency.

add the losers who need a plastic bag for every freakin apple or peach they choose (why, people, why?), get their meat put in a separate bag, and need double bags just to shlep their crap to their suv 20 meters away, and that equals a pretty big pile of petroleum waste.

to end on a semi-positive note, i do like creative and thoughtful reuses for bags, like how people stick them into the support lines on hydro poles for dogwalkers to take for poop.

phew. thanks for letting me rant.

Suz said...

Personally, at my house, we need to get better at this. Hordes of plastic bags enter our house each week --- hordes. I know this though, because we store and reuse them again and again for all sorts of things. Making the switch to reusable bags is something that we need to do. We have enough plastic bags stored to last us quite a while!

Aliki2006 said...

I'm delurking to say you've inspired me to make an effort to do away with the plastic bags. We use them because we're lazy, and that's no excuse.

cinnamon gurl said...

No Frills in Guelph charges for plastic bags, which are also coloured green or blue for the wet-dry system here, and provides their old boxes free of charge.

We suck at remembering our own bags though. So we end up with a ton of white plastic bags we can't use for garbage because the city won't accept them. Can you donate them?

Or, maybe I should do as kgirl suggests and leave a bunch at strategic points in our neighbourhood... the points where the dog poo piles up on the sidewalk!

erin k said...

We've worked hard to eliminate (or at least decrease) our plastic bag usage. The problem is, like you say, pretty soon we will have to start buying garbage bags as our grocery bag stock is depleted. Hmmm.

jen said...

amen. we recycle ours, but that is hardly the best we can do. occasionally we remember to take a backpack, but otherwise, we get those damn bags. mindfulness.