Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Paper or plastic... or reusable?

Canvas bag, 'Neither paper nor plastic'I’ve been meaning to comment on a New York Times item from the end of last month, Human Behavior, Global Warming, and the Ubiquitous Plastic Bag. The core of it is summed up in the photo caption at the top:

Many supermarkets sell reusable bags for 99 cents, but few people use them. It is estimated that Americans consume 100 billion plastic bags a year.
I do. I have a string bag and a canvas bag, and I use them both when I shop (and I get lots of comments about the string bag, in particular, because it just expands and expands and expands, so I have to be careful not to let it get too heavy!). I’ll also bring back the plastic bags that I do get, and use them again. But I guess I’m in the minority, at least in the U.S.

Once upon a time, the question was plastic or paper, which had its own somewhat uncertain calculus of virtue and waste. Now, it has begun to dawn on people that you don’t need either. Most supermarkets these days sell sturdy, reusable bags for 99 cents that people can use instead of plastic ones.

Except almost no one does. For lots of different reasons. They buy them and forget to use them. (Truth in advertising: Count me among the serial offenders.) They figure they can reuse the plastic bags for garbage and dog-walking duties. They find them unhygienic; we fell in love with the throwaway culture for a reason. One reusable bag can hold the contents of several plastic ones, but that’s too heavy for the elderly or the frail to carry. It’s just not what we do.

Right, there’s always an excuse. I wash my reusable bags periodically. I do use my plastic bags for trash, but if I didn’t cut down on the number of plastic bags I get, they’d be taking over my house like an infestation of mice or ants, or alien beings composed entirely of dust and cat hair. As it is, there are far too many of them. Come on, all of you use use them for trash and doggie-poop, admit it: you still have more than you need, don’t you?

The other excuse is that it doesn’t really matter, that it’s such a small thing, and they make the bags anyway. What I do won’t make a difference. Well, here’s the thing: yes, they make the bags anyway, because we use them. If we stop using them as much, we won’t cut down on the bags that are out there now... but they will make fewer of them in the future.

As to its being a small thing, here’s what Mr Applebome says in the Times:

Plastic bags are a small part of the picture. (Sport utility vehicles, McMansions, long commutes, anyone?) But you think, if we can’t change our behavior to deal with this one, we can’t change our behavior to deal with anything.

Looking at another aspect of all this, here’s another item from the NYT, a week and a half later, Seattle’s Recycling Success Is Being Measured in Scraps

Seattle now recycles 44 percent of its trash, compared with the national average of around 30 percent, which makes it a major player in big-city waste recovery. Its goal, city waste management officials said, is to reach 60 percent by 2012 and 72 percent by 2025.
Yay, Seattle! I knew I liked that place.

If they can improve things, well, so can the rest of us.




1 comment:

Thomas J. Brown said...

A few months ago, my wife and I purchased the 99-cent fabric bags and we love them. Our store takes 5 cents off of our bill per bag used. We keep them by the door to help remember them, although we do sometimes forget.

We recycled most of the plastic bags we we had laying around (you're right, there were tons of them!), and we use the rest for garbage and to take my lunch to work.