Green Shopping Bags

Last month Los Angeles became the largest city to adopt a ban on plastic bags.  For some, this may seem like a harsh and overly restrictive regulation that is at least inconvenient.  We’ve come to expect retailers to provide free paper or plastic bags for us to carry out our consumables, and this new restriction is an important advance for the environment.  The law will be phased in, and require retailers to charge ten cents per paper bag to encourage people to bring reusable bags.

There’s good reason to reduce the number of plastic bags.  Since they are free, they have little perceived value and therefore freely discarded, and often carried off in a breeze.  While many of these bags are recyclable, most end up in a landfill, and take hundreds of years (if ever) to decompose.  But the ones that are carelessly lost often clog up sewers, litter our waterways and end up in our oceans. In the North Pacific ocean, for example, there is a massive swirling island of plastic the size of the state of Texas that threatens marine life.  Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals and millions of seabirds die each year as a result, either from ingestion or entanglement.  Other studies show that the chemicals used in plastics leach out into the seas, contaminating the water with questionable consequences.

Since I frequent green-leaning events, I have acquired an abundance of reusable bags over the years.  Both my wife’s and my car each have a bag-load of bags, with additional bags in the closet for picnics, parties and the like. We often shop at Trader Joe’s, which at one point let you put your name in for a free drawing if you bagged your groceries with reusable bags (including the free paper bags that they provided at a previous visit.)  My challenge is simply to remember to bring them in with me; since I leave them in the trunk, I often forget and have even gone so far as to run out to the car to retrieve them while the clerk is ringing up my groceries!

How inconvenient is this?  I think it’s all what you get used to.  I smile when I actually remember to bring my bags with me. I suspect that if I shopped more regularly, I might likely develop the habit as much as remembering to bring a coat when it may get cold or an umbrella when it might rain. Unfortunately our culture doesn’t encourage this kind of responsibility, so at some point we have to do something drastic, like LA and many other cities have done.

While we attempt to minimize the number of new plastic bags coming into our home, we do reuse them as kitchen trash can liners, and return any excess to the retailers to be recycled.  This can eliminate the need to purchase additional plastic garbage bags, which only exacerbate the problem.  Paper bags are best for collecting recyclables, while plastic grocery bags are more ideal for the landfill-destined items.  Next month we’ll take a more in-depth look at recycling.  The continued advancements in the industry make it easier than ever to recycle the lion’s share of our waste.

One of the concerns raised about LA’s ban was the impact on the jobs of the people who work for plastic manufacturers.  By no means do I turn a deaf ear to their pleas, and yet I trust that a phased-in approach will enable those companies to seek and find other more eco-friendly products to sell in place of the bags.  Many companies have had to re-invent themselves, like Eastman Kodak after digital photography vanquished traditional film.  While this was not a government-imposed regulation, it’s an example of a company deeply entrenched in a product that’s time has come to fade into history.

As many trends start on the coasts and work their way inland, don’t be surprised to see this in the Midwest sooner or later.  Hopefully by then you’ll be so used to bringing your own bags that it won’t matter!

If you’d like to learn more, check out the movie Bag It for a colorful and compelling look at this important issue.

This was published in the Going Green section of the July 2012 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.

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