The American love affair with the plastic bag is like the quintessential story of the Good hopelessly drawn to the Bad. We’re always telling ourselves we’re going to do right next time. Then we get to the register. “Can I bag that up for you?” Before we know it: “OK.” It’s a toxic relationship we just can’t seem to shake! But there is help. The first step we’ve got to take is to reexamine why we keep going back to the same disposable choice.
1. Plastic bags are free!
Sorry, actually it costs a lot to pay for the materials and energy to make and ship every bag. And while you may not be charged per-bag at the register, retailers are passing on the expense to you in the form of higher prices! This doesn’t even factor in the disposal costs your taxes pay for, not to mention the accumulating environmental costs that we all share from the build up of litter and wildlife dying from plastic consumption. That’s a lot of cost for a one-time thing.
2. But, plastic bags are not really that big of a problem…are they?
They might be lightweight and compact, but they pile up fast. For some perspective, artist Chris Jordan’s 2007 piece, “Plastic Bags,” from his series, “Running the Numbers,” shockingly depicts the amount of plastic bags used in the US every five seconds. Worse still, these bags are made from materials that don’t break down, so they keep piling up. In fact, for the last few years, International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) volunteers have reported that plastic bags are the second most commonly found item during beach cleanups. Then of course there is the famed “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a “soup” of plastic particles, including photodegraded plastic bags, which scientists estimate to be about twice the size of Texas!
3. Well, recycling is solving the problem though.
Recycling is very important, but full effectiveness depends on large scale participation. Unfortunately, even with a statewide infrastructure for plastic bag recycling, plastic recycling rates are extremely low: 3%, with only 5.9% of that number carryout bags, according to a 2011 CalRecycle report. Even if that number were higher, the sheer amount of consumption paired with a low market demand for recycled bags makes the challenge far too big for recycling alone to solve.
4. I can use paper bags instead.
Be careful of rebound alternatives! Surprisingly, a lot of the same negatives of one-time-use plastic bags apply to one-time-use paper bags as well. Sure, paper may look and feel more responsible at first, but it’s also heavier and bulkier to ship (which means more fuel use in transport per bag) and it can take many times the amount of production energy of plastic bags to make the equivalent number of paper bags. Paper bags can even take over 91% more fuel and energy to recycle, while those that end up in the trash will not decompose as quickly as you think—if at all! That’s a deal breaker.
5. Good bags are hard to find.
There are plenty of good bags, you’ve just been in the same disposable rut for so long that you’ve forgotten where to look. Cloth or other quality reusable bags are keepers when it comes making change in the community and keeping change in your pocket. Best of all, these bags are with you for the long haul. The only question you’ll ask in the end is, “why did I stick with disposable bags for so long?”
If you live in San Bernardino County and want to go reusable, like us on Facebook and score a FREE Zero Waste Reusable Bag made from recycled contents. What was the first reusable bag you found that made you leave behind disposable bags for good? We want to hear your stories!