Sunday, November 05, 2006

IMPRINT: Fill the Bag, Not the Environment... A new BYOB

There are anywhere between 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags consumed every year. And I believe it. I work in a health food store and I am shocked at how many people don’t remember their reusable bags. But then of course there are the customers that always remember and even re-use old bread bags for their bulk flour and oat purchases.

A person's use of a plastic check-out bag can sometimes be counted in minutes - however long it takes to get groceries from the shops to their homes. These bags, however, can last for hundreds of years in a landfill when not recycled. Overall, plastic bags are bad for the environment.

Most are made of polypropylene, a byproduct of oil refining. There is an emerging science of manufacturing “plastic bags” from corn starch and soy, but I have yet to come across any stores that carry them. Also, most plastic bags are also made in China and then shipped all over the world consuming even more fossil fuels.

In the marine environment, plastic bag litter is lethal, killing thousands of sea life every year. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and then die of starvation because the plastic blocks their stomach. In 2002 a whale washed up on a beach at Normandy and was found to have 800 grams of plastic and other packaging in its stomach.

In cities, they litter the sides of highways, allow for stagnant water breeding grounds for mosquitoes to populate your neighbourhood and largely contribute to the city dump. Overall, in the urban environment they’re a pain in the ass. Just ask Bangladesh. In 2002 the city reduced the number of plastic bag use after drains blocked by bags contributed to widespread monsoon flooding in 1998.

At the grocery store you’re often offered the paper alternative to plastic. Although the paper bag is recyclable, and decomposes rather quickly, it’s still not good enough. Making paper bags uses even more trees and since they are heavier and larger than plastic, paper bags produce more carbon emissions from the added transport they require.

It’s obvious for an environmentalist to rant about the importance of using reusable bags, but they’re so much more. In addition to helping the environment, reusable bags are kinder to hands and fingers, can hold twice as many items as conventional plastic carrier bags and have handle straps that can go over the shoulder, leaving both our hands free. They can carry more and will not bust under the weight of heavy items. They’re inexpensive, can be washed and used for years. Furthermore, reusable bags can actually be quite fashionable.

I was visiting Sydney in fall 2004 and the most interesting fashion phenomenon was taking hold of the city and was shared by all classes of society - rich or poor, young or old. This bright green bag was seen everywhere. This reusable bag was the tangible product of the campaign to cut plastic bag use put on by the Australian Government in partnership Australia’s largest grocery chain, Woolworths. By the end of 2004, 5 million green bags were sold nation wide at $0.99 a piece. Although the store continued to provide free plastic bags, when you didn’t remember your green bag, you would get a look of disapproval from the clerk that was almost as scary as the judgmental girls in high school.

There was some controversy over the green bag campaign since they were made using woven plastic fibers and that it was just a scam for the grocery stores to make money. But environmentalists argued that they’re a better option because they can be reused for up to two years, after which they can be recycled. Mine is almost two years old and still going strong.
So the next time you go for groceries or errands, don’t forget to BYOB (Bring Your Own Bags). If you’re in a pinch, using the odd bag is alright just as long as you re-use or recycle it. And remember, when using a plastic bag as waste liner, make sure you fully fill the bag before throwing it away.

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