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Photo of plastic bag
It's Not My Bag, Baby!

by L.J. Williamson

It was the grooviest thing to come along since, oh, Tupperware, but after 25 years the plastic bag is proving that, indeed, breaking up is hard to do.

I decided about six months ago to make a tiny but, to my mind, revolutionary environmental step: I started bringing two heavy-duty plastic beach totes with me to the grocery store. My tote bags practically screamed out, "Look who's helping the environment!" But no one else seemed very impressed. Just confused.

Here's what usually happens: The cashier looks at my totes, which I've already placed in the bagging area, and searches for their price tags. When she can't find a bar code, she asks me where I got them. "Target," I say cheerfully. I get a quizzical look, then explain that I brought them to put my groceries in. Sometimes it gets very complicated. Once, the bag boy for my lane saw the totes and felt the need to call over another bagger for help. The two of them stood there for a long time, puzzling over the right way to place my groceries inside these strange new contraptions. "I've never seen this kind of bag before," said the first one. The second bagger made a halting grab for a brick of cheese, peered inside the bag, and gingerly dropped it in. Emboldened by this, the first guy took a carton of eggs and placed it alongside the cheese. The novelty of the situation had so befuddled their adolescent brains that they neglected the cardinal rule of bagging: breakables on top. The cashier interceded and replaced the eggs with a can of SpaghettiOs.

As I left, I overheard the first bagger say, "Why would someone bring their own bags?" To which the other replied, "Because plastic bags last for, like, 50 years in a landfill." "Really?" says the first guy. What I thought was by now common knowledge is still coming as news to bag boys.

Go to Europe and the best way to find the local farmers' market is to follow the people carrying woven bags on their arms. But here in the United States, bringing your own never caught on, in spite of the multitudes who bought copies of 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth . Right now, 80 percent of our groceries go home in plastic bags.

And so, with tote bags in hand, I get strange looks. If I tell people, "I use these to help keep plastic out of landfills," I get an oh-you're-one-of-those-types look. But if I simply say, "I already have such a huge pile of plastic bags at home," the response is more sympathetic: "Oh, I know just what you mean!" Everyone, it seems, is afraid of that impending avalanche behind the pantry door.

And that's really what I'm reacting to: the ubiquity of the plastic bag. Nothing epitomizes better the mindless profligacy of our consumer culture than these cheap, flimsy, yet depressingly indestructible little bags that get caught in our trees, blow down streets, and wash up on our beaches. Look around -- they're everywhere. Americans throw away one hundred billion polyethylene bags a year. They choke thousands of marine animals annually; the inks used to print all those smiley faces break down in landfills and create a toxic seep. Though plastic bags take up less than four percent of all landfill space (they're easily compressed), estimates on how long they take to decompose range from a hundred years to a thousand, despite what the bag boys at my local supermarket think.

Which is why in other places around the world, this homely bag has finally entered the political spotlight. On January 1, Taiwan banned the free distribution of plastic bags in supermarkets and other stores. Bangladesh began enforcing its own ban after discovering that discarded bags were clogging drainage and sewage lines, which increased flooding and the incidence of waterborne diseases. South Africa now prohibits all plastic bags under 30 microns thick (typical grocery bags are 18 microns) in the hope that customers will reuse the sturdier bags. The flimsier sort came to festoon so much of the country's landscape that South Africans began to call the plastic bag their "national flower."

The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand are all considering imposing a tax on plastic bags since Ireland instituted a 15 cent per bag tax in March 2002, which has reduced bag use by 90 percent. Grocery stores complained about having to collect the tax, which requires them to ring up bags like additional purchases. But as a spokesman for an Irish supermarket chain explained to the London Independent , "Eventually, most people said, yes, it's the right thing to do. We just needed to be pushed into it."

Yet few think a tax, much less a ban, on plastic bags would take hold in the United States. Our grocery stores strive to create a perfect "climate of consumption," where nothing impedes the consumer from impulse to purchase, explains Allen Hershkowitz, a recycling expert at NRDC. "For stores, it's not just a cost issue; it's about them making the customer's experience as convenient as possible."

The film American Beauty , which features a long, poetic clip of a plastic bag swirling on an eddy of air, snagged five Academy Awards, yet I for one still find it hard to think of plastic bags as things of beauty. But as a product -- as something created and then unleashed to become seamlessly integrated into the lives of millions of people around the world -- there is a strange allure to them, just as a pathologist can admire the structure of a particularly virulent and contagious virus.

Polyethylene was invented in the 1930s, but it wasn't used to take our groceries home until 1977. Visionaries of the plastics industry saw the bags as a way to increase their market share in grocery stores beyond the already omnipresent tear-from-the-roll sacks in the produce department. But the real watershed came in 1982, when the industry persuaded two of the nation's largest supermarket chains, Safeway and Kroger, to replace traditional paper bags with the much more cost-effective plastic model. For customers, the appeal could be summed up in one word: handles. Paper bags didn't get handles until the late 1990s, and by then it was too late. Plastic had taken over.

Of course, no one thought ahead about how we would dispose of all this new waste. Only an estimated 0.6 percent of grocery bags are recycled. Recyclers who collect at curbside don't want them because they clog up their machinery. Grocery stores began offering recycling bins for plastic bags in the early 1990s, but much of what's collected ends up in the garbage dump anyway. A little piece of Saran Wrap, or a tiny bit of moisture from a head of lettuce, can ruin a whole batch and send it to the landfill, explains Linda Smith, a spokeswoman for the Boulder, Colorado-based recycler Eco-cycle.

According to one commonly cited study from 1997, 58 percent of Americans prefer paper to plastic; yet a report by the Film and Bag Federation the year before found that four out of the five grocery bags we actually use are plastic. How to explain the discrepancy? People actually do prefer paper (despite paper's own environmental problems; see "Tough Choice"), but supermarkets have made it difficult to choose anything but plastic.

Stores have a financial interest in keeping their checkout lines moving smoothly, and having more than one option at the end of the line slows things down. A spokesman for Ralph's, one of California's large supermarket chains, would not admit to any company bias other than "customer choice," but a checker I spoke with at one of their stores told me that employees were explicitly instructed to use plastic if the customer expressed no preference. More important to supermarket execs everywhere: price. Plastic bags cost about four cents each, while the average paper bag costs twice that amount. True, paper bags hold between two and three times as much as plastic ones, but when all the numbers are crunched, supermarkets still save by using plastic when you factor in all those "single-bag" orders, in which a customer's entire purchase fits into a single sack, whether it's paper or plastic.

You'd think that stores would be thanking me then for bringing my own bags and saving them money. Not true. The owners of U.S. supermarkets might be reluctant to cast aspersions (publicly) on their valued customers, but stores that have faced restrictions on plastic bags in other countries have complained that encouraging customers to bring their own simply encourages petty theft. It's not hard to find evidence of that attitude here at home. Recently, I bought a single bottle of soda at a convenience mart.

"That's okay, I don't need a bag," I said, and handed it back to the young woman behind the register.

"It's our policy that we put everything in a bag," she explained. "If you don't want it, you can just throw it away when you get outside."

"Your policy isn't that great for the environment," I said.

"Yeah, but if we see someone carrying something out in a bag, we know they're not shoplifting."

"How about I just keep my receipt?" I said. "That should prove I didn't shoplift." Once outside, I turned around and watched the cashier toss my bag into the garbage.

We've got a long way to go.








Most environmentally minded shoppers don't hesitate to opt for paper, with its kraft-colored aura of wholesomeness, rather than suffer the stigma of schlepping around its glaringly synthetic cousin. Yet paper has its own dirty little secrets.

Most of our paper grocery bags originate in one of two places: Canada, where 90 percent of the timber is harvested from old, biologically rich forests, or the southeastern United States, where timber companies are rapidly replacing the region's last native woodlands with monocultural tree plantations that have as little biodiversity as corn fields.

Then there's the paper industry itself. To transform virgin timber into paper, manufacturers consume more fresh water than any other industry on the planet, and in return emit significant quantities of dioxin and other hazardous pollutants, according to EPA.

It's enough to make you want to BYOB -- bring your own bag.





L.J. Williamson is a freelance writer who lives in Southern California.

Photo: Chip Simons

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council