Opinion: Skip the plastic

It’s a routine you know well: you load your groceries onto the checkout line, pay, grab your purchases, walk away. Done. But look down. What are you carrying your groceries in? Is it one of those white, crinkly plastic things? Is it stiff, brown paper? Or is it one of those new “green bags” you bought for a dollar last week? You know what’s coming. At this point, you’re probably feeling either really good or really guilty, depending on what’s in your hands.

I want to discuss those white, crinkly things: plastic bags. In the past few years, an environmental movement towards the elimination of plastic bags has left many of us familiar — to the point of boredom — with at least one argument against their use: plastic bags are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, so they will never completely decompose; they cost governments enormous amounts of money to clean out of drains, trees and rivers; if ingested by sea creatures, plastic bags float their way through the food chain until their particles end up on our plates.

I attended a conference addressing the problem of plastics polluting the Atlantic Ocean, during which we watched a “mockumentary” about “The Majestic Plastic Bag.” In the video, a British narrator details the journey of a plastic bag from your hands to the ocean as if describing the mystifying migration of a monarch butterfly. Once it reaches water, the plastic bag, “never actually biodegrading, … can live indefinitely, coexisting with billions of other petroleum species.” Media like this can manipulate us into believing that every plastic bag will ultimately end up in a landfill, the ocean or the stomach of some innocent sea turtle. However, that isn’t always the case.

Ironically, the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) has taken a similar campaign theme, “A Bag’s Life,” in order to actually promote the use of plastic bags. The campaign involves public education about how plastic bags “live” to be recycled and reused. Bags in the campaign are illustrated with frowns until they are brought to a recycling bin where the frown becomes a smile. Bags of the APBA’s campaign seem to find purpose and happiness in reuse and recycling, whereas the plastic bags of the opposing campaign do not achieve their purpose until they have polluted the ocean.

The APBA does raise a handful of rational points. Plastic bags are often reused as trash bags and pet-waste bags, or they can be recycled into construction products and new plastic bags. The production of plastic bags requires less water and significantly fewer trees than paper bag production. According to the APBA, plastic bags even create more than 30,000 American jobs in manufacturing and recycling. Besides, remembering to grab the green bags out of the car and toting them around the store is notisn’t always easy. Maybe plastic bags aren’t so bad after all.

On a scale of importance, American jobs and personal convenience seem to weigh more heavily relative to the occasional stray parking lot bag and sick sea turtle. That’s precisely how the APBA wants you to feel. Now you’re standing at the grocery store exit and questioning whether you’re making the right decision. But why should you have to worry about jobs and the environment — isn’t that what the government is for?

A handful of regions are actually tackling the plastic bag question. However, much to the APBA’s delight, most places are in a “do nothing” stage. The other day, I interrupted my cashier’s bag- loading process to ask if I could use my green bag instead. Her response was a raised brow. She seemed surprised by my choice to forgo using free plastic from the miles of bags stretched down the line of checkout counters. Plastic bags are so bountiful and their use is so habitual in some places that change would not have a very positive reception.

In 2011, Maryland’s Montgomery County imposed a five-cent tax per bag. Locals were initially quite annoyed. Over time, however, the accumulative cost made them think differently about the necessity of a plastic bag.  Regardless of initial reception, local governments that have instituted taxes or bans on plastic bags begin to see positive changes. Ever since a 20-cent tax per bag was imposed in Dublin, Ireland, the city has nearly eliminated its consumption of plastic bags. Additionally, the tax has actually benefited retailers by decreasing the need to purchase bags for customer use.

Taxation isn’t the only solution: a number of large cities across the United States, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland and Austin, practice a total ban on plastic bags and reap the benefit of less litter. Even residents of a small ranching and oil-drilling community in Fort Stockton, Texas, have grown accustomed to using green bags following a plastic bag ban in 2011. Since then, the number of bags snagged on cactuses and chain link fences has decreased significantly. In 2002, Bangladesh blamed plastic bags for contributing to countrywide flooding by clogging drainage systems. You can probably imagine the benefits of a ban in that context.

Multiple regions have demonstrated that it is actually possible to recover from our plastic bag addiction. No, not all plastic bags end up polluting the environment because yes, there are recycling programs in place to alleviate some environmental pressures. Organizations such as the APBA will argue that plastic bags make up less than 1one percent of the United States’ solid waste and that there’s no use focusing on such a small piece. You can choose to abide by that defeatist perspective and walk out of the store with a fist full of plastic. Or you can remember that human life is possible, if not somewhat enriched, without the aid of plastic bags.

As you walk out of the store with a green bag slung over your shoulder, a sea turtle somewhere is thanking you.