“Paper or plastic?”
This is a simple question, asked millions of times per day in supermarket checkout lines across the country. Not too difficult to answer for most, but a question with major consequences for the planet.
America’s addiction to plastic, perhaps most notably plastic shopping bags, leads to an enormous environmental problem. For example, in New York City alone the administration pays more than $10 million per year in order to send 100,000 tons of plastic bags to out-of-state landfills. Think about how little a plastic bag actually weighs, and then try and imagine such a massive volume – it’s not easy to picture, and that’s just one city.
Zooming out to a larger scale, across the country it is further estimated by the Wall Street Journal that we use 100 billion of these bags in stores and supermarkets, which require a considerable amount of raw material to produce. To produce bags at this volume requires the production and usage of around 12 million barrels of oil, which should come as a staggering figure when considering the associated repercussions this level of oil consumption brings.
A Question of Attitude
Why did we become addicted to these bags in the first place? Simply because they’re so easy.
In years gone by, most consumers would certainly not think about bringing their own carrier bags with them. Yet something was, after all, needed to gather all the supplies together in a form able to be carried out to the waiting car. This was seen as a “free” service to the consumer, but as we know nothing in life is free – the cost of providing these bags is about $4 billion among all US retailers and this is, of course, passed along to the consumer in the cost of their groceries.
In many parts of the world and an increasing number of states, major action has been taken to curtail the use of these plastic bags. If you go to certain countries in Europe, such as Italy or the UK, you will not see such a problem; consumers there are being incentivized to bring their own reusable cloth bags, and do so en masse.
You may have thought that this would spur a collective shame among heavily plastic-reliant societies and that we would all be falling over ourselves to do something about it, yet this is not the case. While part of the problem is that it takes a long time for the ‘reusable mentality’ to become engrained, there are cases of outright defiance to the idea of giving up (or reducing) our dependency on plastic. To take Dallas as an example, politicians introduced what they called the “shopping bag freedom act” aimed at protecting the right of the supermarket merchant to provide bags of whatever material they deemed fit…
… talk about one step forward and two steps back.
Putting Band-Aids on Axe Wounds
So what about recycling? Unfortunately, this also has been a tough pill to swallow, since it is understandably seen by some merchants as a real chore, especially given that plastic bags may not be recycled with other forms of plastic and an arduous amount of sorting must be undertaken before it is shipped to the recycling plant. Even if a retailer has the resources to carry out such a recycling operation, we have to consider the implication of ‘downcycling’ – recycled plastic bags are usually turned into more plastic bags, and this process does not go on indefinitely given that synthetic polymers lose their tensile strength very quickly. The process simply delays the inevitable trip to the landfill.
While we may have made progress in the past 10 years, we’ve also got a long way to go and the take-home message remains unchanged – whether we like to admit it or not, we are all still focused on the easy way out. We don’t seem to mind keeping a closet or kitchen drawer stuffed with old bags that we half-heartedly reuse, up until we get so fed up with the mess that we throw them into the garbage. A lot of work must be done if we are going to break America’s addiction to plastic bags, and until we do, the price is high.