Actually, I love re-cycling in general. I do not understand, why people need to be convinced that it's a cool thing to do. How would any of us like it, if someone showed up, trashed our house and then left? Well, if we think on a planetary scale, too many of us are acting just as such rude and inconsiderate guests with respect to our kids: trashing the place fifteen times over and leaving it to someone else to clean up the mess. Some even go so far as to insist, that the mess is not actually there, while continuing to contribute to said mess at the very same time.
In her The Story of Stuff series, the brilliant Annie Leonard has already done a fabulous job delivering the skinny (the carefully researched, detailed, fact- and number-supported skinny) on various categories of stuff ubuiquitously (and wastefully) present in our lives: consumer electronics, cosmetics, clothes, and cars. The video that got me hooked on The Story of Stuff project was the one about bottled water. While I was very well aware of the environmental, financial and health drawbacks of the product at the center of one of the biggest advertising scams in America, I loved Annie's tongue-in-cheek presentation. Pointed at those who are too fond of saying, "Oh, you are exaggerating!" or, "Why do you make things so complicated?" the message delivered in the primitive cartoon form retorts, "Really? Ok, well, let me simplify it for you to a level where even a five-year old would get the point."
The logical extension of the bottled water installment of The Story of Stuff would have been a piece on plastic grocery bags. However, the group in charge of the project must have been overly enthusiastic that day, "The plastic bottle issue and the plastic grocery bag issue are so similar. Surely - surely - people can extrapolate the solutions and alternatives from the former to the latter." And so they went on to make videos addressing issues with other things.
I am afraid their optimism was a bit premature. The two issues are, indeed, very similar. And yet, judging by the measly percentage of plastic bags that get recycled or replaced with reuseable bags, people are not quite making the connection. Plastic bags are convenient. They are there. The store baggers will even put the stuff into the bags for you. Superfifically, plastic grocery bags are effortless and require no thinking or effort on your part whatsoever. That much is true.
However, we do want you to engage your "little gray cells" as Hercule Poirot would say. You don't even have to do any work. Here are some scary facts about plastic bags and their deceptively progressive-looking cousins - paper bags, already conveniently researched and summarized for you by Envirosax - the promoter and seller of super-cool and fashionable reuseable bags:
- Approx. 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States every year. That’s more than 1,200 bags per US resident, per year.
- Approx. 100 billion of the 380 billion are plastic shopping bags.
- An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags.
- Only 1 to 2% of plastic bags in the USA end up getting recycled.
- Thousands of marine animals and more than 1 million birds die each year as a result of plastic pollution.
- The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean.
- Plastic bags are often mistakenly ingested by animals, clogging their intestines which results in death by starvation. Other animals or birds become entangled in plastic bags and drown or can’t fly as a result.
- Even when they photo-degrade in landfill, the plastic from single-use bags never goes away, and toxic particles can enter the food chain when they are ingested by unsuspecting animals.
- Greenpeace says that at least 267 marine species are known to have suffered from getting entangled in or ingesting marine debris. Nearly 90% of that debris is plastic.
- Americans consume more than 10 billion paper bags per year. Approximately 14 million trees are cut down every year for paper bag production.
- Most of the pulp used for paper shopping bags is virgin pulp, as it is considered stronger.
- Paper production requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of water as well as toxic chemicals like sulphurous acid, which can lead to acid rain and water pollution.
Huh... All that - due to someone's desire to keep things convenient at the grocery checkout. If all or any of the above makes you shudder, I sincerely hope that you are willing to give up a little bit of convenience for a whole lot of environmental benefit. Nearly every store now offers reuseable cloth, nylon or heavy plastic bags right at checkout. Health- and environment-focused chains like EarthFare and green-conscious companies like IKEA have outlawed conventional plastic bags altogether, ensuring that their regular shoppers get into a habit of bringing their own reuseable bags or buying them at the store.
I am the first to admit - I can be a real airhead sometimes and I do forget to put my reuseable bags back into the car after unloading the groceries. When that happens and I cannot transport whatever it is I bought to the car just in my hands, I buy a reuseable bag offered by the store. They usually cost 99 cents.
Discount clothes retailers like TJMaxx are pushing the concept even further, turning their store-brand reuseable bags into fashion accessories. Gone are the days of the little sack-looking things toted around by little old ladies. You can get one in pink with avant-garde fashion- and travel-related images imprinted on the bag in radical glossy black.
World Wildlife Fund and National Wildlife Federation will send you a set of reuseable heavy plastic shopping bags with photos of adorable animals on them for a donation of $25.
If you think you'll need as many reuseable bags as you normally do plastic or paper grocery bags from a regular shopping trip, think again - not even close. First of all, there are the clueless baggers who for some reason believe that if they place more than one bottle of wine or olive oil per bag, the bag will rip into pieces from the merest air movement.
Second, reuseable bags are made either of heavy industrial-strength plastic or thick woven cloth with some substantial seaming (try saying that five times fast!). Yes, some reuseable bags do use plastic, but it's a very different substance from the flimsy stuff the regular grocery bags are made of. You would have a hard time piercing them with a large nail, let alone with the corner of a cereal box. You can load them up to your heart's content. There are more structured bags that are awesome for boxed products (cereal, pizzas, crackers, cookies, blocks of cheese, etc.), and there are also shapeless unstructured ones for just about everything else. IKEA's famous Big Blue Bag is large enough to fit a baby elephant with enough room left for maybe a small puppy. There are also net bags that are knit from heavy yarns. Those things stretch indefinitely (well, almost) and are great for all things awkwardly shaped (soft spikey chew toys for pets) or entirely shapeless (bundles of yarn or silk flowers).
Yes, you will have to tell them you want to use your own bags at checkout. Yes, some baggers will have that deer-in-the-headlights look, as they try to figure out precisely what to do with those bags. And yes, it's possible that having to put stuff into reuseable bags will prove to be a learning process for the store employees, causeing a bit of a slowdown in the checkout line and a few glares from your plastic shopping bag using fellow customers. Ignore it all. At worst, people will think you are weird, as they continue to selfishly pollute the environment by using the plastic bags. At best, while they stand there and wait for you to check out, they might pay attention to how much stuff fits into the reuseable bags, and how much easier it is to get them into the shopping cart. They might even get the idea to use something like that too!
In addition to using reuseable bags, consider not using anything at all when you are just getting one or two things, especially if we are talking about small things. You don't need a bag for a pack of gum, a stick of lip balm or one prescription. You can put them into your pocket or into your handbag. Just tell the person at the checkout that you don't need a bag for that. Do your best to catch them before they pull up a bag to pack your stuff - sometimes these goofy people actually throw away the plastic bag they took off the bag stand instead of using it for the next customer. Yes, again, they might look at you funny, but as an experienced sophisticated reuseable bag user, you'll be used to it by then.
Look, I cannot simplify this for you to the cartoon level, like Annie Leonard did - I simply do not possess that skill level as an animator. But this is pretty simple already. Disposeable grocery bags are ugly, unreliable, bad for the environment and every time you use one, a baby whale or an albatross dies. Reuseable bags are cool, good-looking, sturdy, roomy and help make life easier for people with respiratory illnesses and for cute animals. Ok, maybe some not so cute - they help preserve octopi and sharks too... But that shouldn't discourage you. Octopi and sharks are very graceful and fascinating animals, upon closer inspection (but not too close). So, be cool - use reuseable bags.