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!