Forget paper vs. plastic :: re-useable bags reduce waste and increase awareness

Hopefully we’re all becoming aware of how wasteful it is to use plastic or paper shopping bags. It’s been challenging for me to change my habits. Despite having purchased a few “permanent” bags from Whole Foods, I still struggle with my absent-minded self to remember to bring them when I go shopping.

The NY Times writes about how Ireland’s 33-cent tax on plastic bags has sharply decreased the use of these bags, at least in supermarkets. This made me wonder:

Should we keep using bags in the US? Absolutely not. I think the problem is that annually, we produce millions of pounds of paper and plastic bags, and every year many of these end up trashed. The problem is, it’s a total waste. Imagine if we all had permanent bags we just used on every store visit. (Whether made from cloth or post-consumer waste or whatever). This alone would change our routine of using shopping bags from “make bags, throw away bags” to “no new bags”, and would only take a year or two to change the entire US’s use of bags.

And what is the deal with paper versus plastic bags? Paper bags require more energy to create, are heavier per bag than plastic bags so they require more energy to ship, and are slower to degrade in the environment. So yes, on one level, paper is less desirable than plastic. But the issue isn’t “paper or plastic”. It’s new bag vs. reusable bag. Jennifer Killinger at the ACC summarizes some basic energy and waste facts about paper vs. plastic here. Being from the ACC (The American Chemistry Council, not the assocation of college basketball teams!), which represents chemical companies (some of whom stand to lose, if Americans start using fewer plastic bags, which are made from polyethylene), the doc also argues against using paper bags (perhaps not a surprise!).

Then I was wondering, could we ever pass a similar tax in the States? Would a carbon tax help Americans with behaviors like “use reusable bags instead of paper OR plastic”? Short answer is I don’t know enough about US politics to have a stance on this yet. I feel like a bag tax wouldn’t pass, because large chemical companies could easily lobby it down, or barter with something else to avoid wholesale ban or tax on the bags. And, while a carbon tax would trickle into higher bag prices, this hike would be hidden from consumers. Supermarkets would absorb these higher costs, rather than pass them onto consumers, to avoid losing business. And you’d see different markets handling the hikes differently, which means the impact on Americans’ behavior would be diluted. It’s both easier and more impactful to just say, “look these bags are wasteful and unnecessary, so here’s a new law that makes using reusable bags the easiest, cheapest solution.”

Finally, part of me was like, aren’t there bigger priorities in the world, in terms of energy use and waste, than worrying about plastic bags? Yes, there are — eg, building energy use, transportation, power generation, industrial pollution, deforestation, food and livestock generation. Yet at the same time, it seems like stopping the use of paper and plastic bags is relatively easy and fast to implement, per Ireland’s example. And at least in Ireland, this seems to have built awareness about waste.

So — America should tax or eliminate non-reusable bags, and incentivize their re-use (or punish their trashing), to also build awareness about what happens to these plastic bags. I feel we need to overcome the ignorance that these bags just “go away” when we leave them for the trash collector – they’re still here, and we need ways to quickly help Americans understand the consequences of our gluttonous consumption.

What do you think?

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