I want to say one word to you. Plastics.

January 22, 2008

Plastic, plastic everywhere.

Everyone’s talkin’bout plastic! No more Nalgenes — SIGG is in the house (check out their creepy severed-head bottle tops in the opening Flash animation). In China, no more plastic bags. In Australia, almost no more plastic bags. In L.A., possibly no more plastic bags. In an individual show of earth-love, Green as a Thistle author Vanessa gave up plastic altogether. And, in a “bold move,” Whole Foods Market today announced that its retail locations will no longer offer the paper or plastic option. It’s paper or poplin from here on out.

As I wrote at the outset of the year, the ubiquity of plastic is a bit overwhelming. (Though I still turn to that most inspiring video on at-home plastic making, featuring a rad sountrack.)

Given this, it seems that bans on plastic totes make sense. But what are the provisions of these bans? What’s the plan of attack? Will retailers simply pay more for their bags, and, quite possibly, pass those costs onto their shoppers? Or will plastic bags be outlawed outright? In Ireland, the government imposed a plastic sack tax. Good method, say I. Money talks, people. Makes consumers pause when they have to pay a mite of the true external cost — that is, the cost to the environment — of that tissue-thin throwaway. Ideally, an additional dollar per grocery trip or an extra nickel for Papa’s brand new bag could reduce the widespread demand for plastic sacks, and, in the long run, pare down the amount of waste funneled into our landfills and out of our oil wells.

But if plastic bags are deemed contraband, what will we use to tote the rubbish to the curb? And none of this “we don’t need trash liners” garbage. Trash begets trash. It leeches toxic liquids, known in the waste disposal industry as “garbage juice.” So, yes, Virginia; we do need trash sacks. Certainly, we have biodegradable bags, fashioned from cornstarch and other sundry materials, each with its own high eco-cost of manufacture. But biodegradable means bupkis once entombed in concrete.

Given this, it seems that the plastic bag bans, whether made good through tax or taboo, miss the mark by a hairsbreadth. While anything to weaken demand for fossil-fuel–based products earns a plum, it seems that taking away the plastic bags redresses a symptom without considering the disease itself. Just as trash begets trash, consumption begets consumption. And if we can reduce that — a.k.a., the disease — we’re onto something.

*ps. I can’t wait to read John Naish’s Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More. Anyone gotten a copy yet? If not, while we wait for our local biblios to bring it in for check-out, here’s an excerpt.

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7 Responses to “I want to say one word to you. Plastics.

  1. Beth Terry said

    I completely agree with your last statement about the need to reduce our overall consumption. At Fake Plastic Fish, I blog about ways to reduce our plastic waste and plastic consumption, and one of the main ways to do that is to just stop buying so much stuff to begin with. We wouldn’t need so many garbage bags if we didn’t have so much garbage in the first place, would we? And we wouldn’t need water-proof garbage bags if we composted our food waste instead of throwing it away.

  2. Beth: What a coincidence. I just found your blog yesterday and committed it to my RSS. Thanks for dropping in.

    Everyone: Check out what Beth is doing to reduce her plastic intake.

  3. Justin said

    South Africa also has a bag tax. Seems like a great idea and was certainly effective in convincing me to carry reusable bags.

    I agree with Beth that the best way to get rid of plastic bags is to stop buying stuff to go into the plastic bags.

  4. Hear, hear. Is it possible, though? As vegetarians, my husband and I are able to compost all of our food waste (dairy included). But for those who eat meat, that isn’t an option. What then?

    All of us are culprits of consumption; there are certain items that we swear we can’t (or won’t) give up, despite their drain on the world around us. Beth, you’ve mentioned that you won’t give up the eye drops. I won’t give up my local, glass-bottled milk, even though it comes with a non-recyclable plastic cap. For many, the aforementioned meat has to stay. Where do we draw the line? Because we have been raised to be consumers, we consume. We feel entitled to consume — especially, I would wager, if we’re limiting our consumption comparatively.

    It’s a bit like this: If 12 other people drive their vehicles to work daily and I walk or ride the bus, why shouldn’t I be able to buy milk in a reusable bottle, despite its plastic topper? I’m doing far less damage, right? I should get a “prize” for that. And my prize is the plastic-topped milk. My prize is a monthly tub of fancy yogurt housed in plastic. A magazine subscription. A Flexcar rental for a day trip.

    Do you see where I’m going? Once we limit ourselves, once we start to feel righteous about our eco-impact, we grow protective of our environmental indiscretions. They become reasonable. Our treats for treading lightly. And when we are challenged on those treats, we can get defensive. We justify our choices based on our comparatively small footprint within the context of a environmentally taxing culture.

    So, is it possible to stop buying stuff to go in the plastic bags? It think it requires a much larger shift in individual and social ethics, and in politics, as well. Your thoughts?

  5. […] to “do our best,” to rationalize and allow breaks and cheats and special treats. Like yogurt in a plastic tub, for example. Like an occasional zip about town in an automobile. Like a magazine subscription — […]

  6. larazacosmica said

    hi! i like your blog. can i use your picture of the plastic bags for mine? it doesn`t have anything on it but it`s called rebelliousrecycling.wordpress.com, i knit using plastic bags and i`m going to put up more things soon. hope to hear from you
    rebelliousrecycling@gmail.com
    katie

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