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Fighting the plastic shopping bag menace

The thing about plastic shopping bags is they are so darn good at their intended purpose: A super-efficient way to get your goods home from Walmart or the farmers market.

What is convenient for a moment, however, is a problem for centuries: How to get rid of the mounds of plastic bags?

According to figures found widely online: 

• In the U.S. alone, 100 billion of the bags are used each year.

• The average lifespan of each bag is 20 minutes -- one commute.

• 60-100 million barrels of oil are used each year to produce the world’s supply of bags.

• The bags are projected to take 400 to 1,000 years to decompose. There is no exact science on this. When you are talking 10 centuries, the bags could outlast the species that created them – a bunch of bags and Styrofoam cups floating in the cosmos after the earth is gone.

Industry groups that produce the bags are quick to point out that they are easily recyclable. Most stores have convenient drop-off bins and will take old bags from competing stores.

The proponents of the bags also note that many bags have a second life as  trash can liners or other uses. Apparently 90 percent of all consumers in an industry-funded survey say they re-use at least some of the bags.

The problem, according to the critics, stems directly from what makes them so economical, they are generally designed for a single use – the handles rip, they tear easily. They are great at getting one load of groceries home, but would you load them down a second or third time?

Conscientious shoppers take care to get the bags back to the recycling bin, but if the plastic bags get loose outside, they are light enough to take flight and wind up where the breeze takes them, often into storm drains in cities and very often into oceans and frequently into the stomachs of large sea creatures.

In 2014, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup.

While we don’t have a coastline here, think how often you see one of those bags tangled up in bushes at the parks, blowing down roadsides or half-buried at some open site.

Bringing the bag-hordes under control is a matter of all consumers accepting less convenience in their lifestyle -- something not very common.

Environmentalists who recognize the problem with the plastic acknowledge there is no easy substitute. Bags made of any other products (wood-pulp paper, cotton or fibers) come with a whole different set of issues due to the volume of bags needed to meet the world’s needs. 

One person joked online that the liberals are already well-positioned to make a change in bag-behavior as they can use all those tote-bags given by public television stations during fund-drives.

Many cities and some countries are adding taxes to the bags or requiring stores to charge for them, which has produced a corresponding amount of whining, but also a substantial drop in the usage.

Britain introduced a small charge at stores in 2015, leading to a plunge of more than 80 percent in the use of plastic bags, according to an article in the Guardian. Think about it this way, if you are buying a drink and candy bar would you really pay another dime for a bag to carry them to the car?

New York City, Los Angeles and at least 100 other smaller U.S. municipalities have some kind of punitive tax or rule in place to discourage single-user plastic bags.

Poorer countries have taken a lead in the fight to eliminate plastic bag litter by banning them. Both Rwanda and Kenya have draconian laws prohibiting the bags entirely – partly because the countries lack efficient garbage services and people there can literally see the scope of the waste as it buries vacant land.

Some combination of education and additional costs would prod consumers to realize you don’t need to bag every single item you purchase. Rather than imposing harsh rules or bans, if consumers recognized the impact of taking the bags and then throwing them in the trash immediately when they get home, maybe we can all cut back voluntarily.

Keep in mind those plastic goblins must go somewhere and wherever they wind up, they are there to stay forever.


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