By Jeff Embleton
As I begin this article, the ticker on www.reuseit.com shows that 293,651,720,000 plastic bags have been consumed this year. Since the plastic bag first found its way into the back seats, kitchen cupboards, and spare space under the sink in American households, we have been consuming them at an alarming rate. Worldwide plastic bag consumption falls between 500 billion and 1 trillion bags annually. That breaks down to almost 1 million every minute.
The plastic sandwich bag was introduced into American lunches in 1957. The long roll of plastic that hangs above fruits and vegetables to protect them from the store to home appeared in 1966. And Americans first heard the question “Paper or plastic?” at the checkout counter in 1977. Some major department stores like Sears and JC Penny had already made the switch to plastic in 1974. From a short-term economic standpoint, it made sense for businesses and grocery stores to make the switch to save money. That’s about where the advantages end.
It didn’t take long for shoppers to embrace the shift to plastic bags as the norm. By 1996, more than 80% of bags taken from the store were plastic. Consumers took the bags, doubled up for heavy items like milk, and went on their merry way. Most of the time, plastic bags were simply tossed into the trash can and added to the waste stream and sent to the landfill.
Then people began to notice the adverse effects of this throw away mentality on the environment. Plastic bags were clogging drainpipes, clinging to fences, killing marine wild life, and unnecessarily increasing the amount of waste in landfills. Plastic bags are made from a combination of non-renewable resources that do not decompose, giving them a shelf life of nearly forever. Protests grew loud enough as far back as 1988 to have the issue put to vote in city legislatures in Minnesota and New York to ban the plastic bags.
On the international level, nations have been wrestling with the issue of plastic bags for almost a decade. Ireland was perhaps the first and most stringent with a surcharge for plastic bags in 2003. Bags are also taxed in Italy and Belgium, and shoppers pay for or are taxed for bags in Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Spain, Norway and many other countries. South Africa, which once had the plastic bag as their unofficial flower, placed restrictions on bags in 2003. China banned the flimsy plastic bags–reducing their use by 40 billion bags and saving China 1.6 million tons of petroleum.
In the United States, San Francisco was the first city to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags at major supermarkets and chain drugstores. That move has led the issue to be considered at a state level where California Senate Appropriations Committee has a bill before them that would ban single-use carryout plastic bags in the state. The Assembly has approved the bill (AB 1998, introduced by Brownley) and Governor Schwarzenegger indicated he would sign it. But the American Chemistry Council has fought this ban every step of the way, even funding a study claiming that using one’s own reusable bag can make you sick. This study was soundly debunked by Consumer Reports.
“A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,” says Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union. The Chemistry Council has spent millions of dollars lobbying against this proposed legislation. Let’s make them realize that the days of single use plastic bags are over.
Write, email or phone your state senator today, telling them that you support the plastic bag ban.
I’ve kept the ticker up in the corner while writing this article and it now reads 293,704,202,212. While we wait for the lawmakers to make the right decision, be a conscientious consumer and BYOB, bring your own bag.