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NRDC's This Green Life
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November 2008 / Links updated 2012
PLASTIC BAGS LOSE THEIR LUSTER
But is paper any better?


Nearly 75 years ago, soft plastic ranked up there with the Mona Lisa and Tower of Pisa as one of civilization's masterpieces, at least according to Cole Porter in his masterpiece, "You're the Top." Feelings have changed a bit since then.

Glamorous no longer While plastic remains the ne plus ultra as far as convenience is concerned, people are not so thrilled with its nasty habit of never, ever going away. Plastic bags, in particular, have come in for a lashing because of the way they litter the streets, get tangled in treetops, choke sea turtles and other animals who mistake them for food, clog municipal sewage systems and, once in landfills, refuse to decompose.

What we have here is yet another love-hate relationship that we do not have the strength to end. As a result, governments at all levels around the world have found it necessary to step into the breach to save us from ourselves.

Australia, Bangladesh, Italy, Ireland, South Africa and Taiwan, China are among the countries trying voluntary programs, taxes and bans to get the problem under control. American cities have also gotten into the act. The first was San Francisco, which outlawed plastic bags at large grocery stores and pharmacies in 2007. Well, that's not so surprising, San Francisco being San Francisco, but this past July, Los Angeles voted for a ban beginning in 2010 if the state fails to move ahead with a 25-cent fee on shoppers requesting plastic bags. Westport, Connecticut joined the club in September.

Most recently, New York City's Mayor Bloomberg proposed a six-cent plastic bag tax (or fee, as he would have it, to avoid having to get approval by the state legislature). The city has been abuzz ever since. Some people say it's time; others wonder how they'll ever survive.

I'm a New Yorker and I couldn't be happier. I only wish the city would tax paper bags, too, since they have their own drawbacks. As the plastics industry is oh-so-quick to point out, they contribute even more to global warming than plastic bags and take up more room in landfills when not recycled. On the other hand, they generally are recycled and then turned into fresh paper, whereas plastic bags are rarely recycled and even more rarely turned into something new. Moreover, when the wind starts blowing, paper bags are much less likely to take off. Paper never causes much of a litter problem anyway since it biodegrades, unlike you-know-what.

But this argument is beside the point because "paper or plastic?" is a trick question whose answer is "reusable." Now that you know, don't wait for a plastic bag tax or ban to come to your town. Go ahead and break the disposable habit on your own.

No need to buy expensive bags for the purpose. Any old canvas totes you happen to have will do -- such as the one you got from NRDC when you joined. (You did join, didn't you?) Stick one in your purse or backpack and a few in the trunk of your car if you drive so you'll always be prepared. If you have a problem remembering to take them out of the trunk when you get to the store, as I've heard some people do, tape a reminder to the dashboard. Ugly, yes, but that's what will make it so hard to miss.

Perhaps you're reluctant to take this step because you have a dog who needs picking up after. If so, see my discussion of how to handle the dog poop quandary.

That leaves garbage disposal. In all likelihood, you will still need some kind of plastic bags for that (but probably the heavy-duty variety which is less likely to cause a littering problem -- especially when weighed down with garbage). However, you can minimize the need by reducing your trash. Here's how:

- Avoid buying overly-packaged products.
- Reuse what you can before disposing of it.
- Give away what you no longer want to reuse.
- Don't overbuy perishable food items.
- Use older vegetables and bones for stock.
- Compost food scraps and yard waste.

When you find yourself pining for the convenience of yore, think about the last time you spotted a plastic bag where one never should be -- at the beach, in the woods, in the mountains or in your yard -- and I bet you'll feel convenience isn't all it's cracked up to be.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

Family photos
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.

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ONLINE RESOURCES

SALON
Plastic Bags Are Killing Us

NEW YORK TIMES
In Mayor's Plan, the Plastic Bag Will Carry a Fee

WASHINGTON POST
Paper or Plastic? More than Meets the Eye

NRDC
Talking "Paper or Plastic" with WNYC's Brian Lehrer (audio)

NRDC
The 3R's Still Rule

NPR
Navigating the Pacific's 'Garbage Patch' (audio)

NRDC polar bag tote bag
Reusable bags are the answer -- like this "Save the Polar Bear" canvas tote, which you can get free when you join NRDC.



The great success story. Ireland is the model for the world, when it comes to government action on plastic bags. In 2002, it instituted its "plastax" (currently 33 cents a bag). Within weeks, use of plastic bags in Ireland dropped 94 percent, changing not just behavior, but the culture, too. Today, the Irish consider it gauche to use plastic bags.



Albatross carcass with plastic contents of stomach
No place untouched. Vast amounts of plastic bags and other plastic debris are being trapped in remote areas of the ocean known as "gyres" that landlubbers never see. There, they circulate for years, never biodegrading, just breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, until they sink or are consumed by animals. The picture above, courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, shows the stomach contents of a dead albatross who fed on plastic.




Your favorite nature spots and mine

This Green Life nature map

The collaborative This Green Life nature map is now on its second page. To see the latest additions, including my own, go to the map on Google and click the markers. To add your favorites:

  1. Go to the map on Google.
  2. SIGN IN to your Google or Gmail account. (You need an account to edit the map.)
  3. Click the edit button in the panel to the left of the map.
  4. DON'T CHANGE the map title or description! INSTEAD, click the balloon icon near the map zoom controls.
  5. Move the balloon to your favorite spot and click.
  6. Tell us why you love it!
  7. Click OK.


Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Beginning next month, she will be musing aloud on green issues occasionally at thisgreenblog.com.