Wednesday, May 23, 2012

One thing we can all do, and ought to do, but don’t do…and here’s why.

The planet we live on is in danger of being completely swallowed up by our love affair with plastic.  Our landfills are overflowing with the stuff, our wildlife is choking to death on it, and our seas contain islands the size of Texas, swirling vortexes of—you guessed it—plastic. 

Plastic was developed with the best of intentions.  It was a product that could be used over and over again and thus save our forests from being decimated and our natural resources from being wasted to create consumer products.  At first, plastic was almost an environmentalist’s dream: you could create products out of it in virtually any shape and size, for almost any purpose, and it was all magically synthetic.  And no animals had to be killed and no trees had to be felled to make these plastic wonder products.
But what no one ever envisioned was that we would one day create plastic products that would be used only once and then discarded at whim.  I’m talking, of course, about the plastic shopping bag that we all use to pack our supermarket food and the retail items we buy at the shopping mall.  It’s estimated that between 500 billion and 1 trillion of these plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year.  Most of us tend to bring these bags home, empty out their contents, and then throw them in the garbage pail without a further thought.  

From our garbage, these bags are then transported to the local landfill.  Approximately 20-25% of a typical landfill weight is made up of plastics (not just garbage bags, of course) and, since most landfills lack adequate moisture and air circulation to encourage decomposition, the plastic we put into landfills remains there almost indefinitely. 

Millions of these bags actually won’t even make it as far as the landfill.    They flutter in the wind, get flushed into river and streams, and pollute our local communities.  Once in the environment, it still takes the average plastic bag  several months to hundreds of years to break down, and when they do, the effects are, if anything, even more problematic than if they remained in landfills.   Toxic chemicals from these plastic bags seep into our soil, lakes, rivers, and oceans.  Tiny bits of plastic the size of plankton are consumed by sea animals, and these chemicals enter their bloodstreams.  And when we consume these animals, they enter our own as well, contributing to cancer and other nasty human ailments.

If you think that paper shopping bags are the solution, they’re not.  Paper shopping bags require more energy to create, produce even more solid waste, and generate even more atmospheric emissions than plastic bags do.

But there is a very easy solution to the shopping bag dilemma:  carry reusable shopping bags with you when you go shopping.  They’re cheap, come in assorted styles, and are extremely compact. 

So why don’t more people bring reusable bags with them when they go shopping?  It seems like a no brainer, doesn’t it?  And yet, if anything, Americans in particular are using more plastic bags than ever before.  So what’s the source of the disconnect between social good and human behavior?

As a matter of full disclosure, I have to confess that I am a person who very often uses plastic bags when I go shopping.  It’s not that I don’t have any reusable bags: I have a bunch that I got for free last year in the trunk of my car.  It’s just that I often forget to take them out of the trunk when I go shopping.  So they sit there while I contribute to the environmental havoc reaped by our nasty plastic habits. 

From my own experience, then, I think that habit gets in the way of changing human behaviors.  We’re all in the habit of jumping out of our cars without anything but our keys and wallets when we go to the supermarket and shopping malls.  What we’ve got to do—what I’ve got to do—is create a new habit of exiting the car, locking it, opening the trunk, taking out the reusable bags, filling them with the items I purchase, emptying the bags of these items when I get home, and then putting the bags back in the trunk of the car for their next use.  If this sounds overly complex, it really isn’t in practice. We just have to create a new habit to replace the old one that is destroying our planet.  It’s quite simple, actually.

The best part is that, as more of us begin to develop the habit of using reusable shopping bags, they’ll become more common and other people will feel more comfortable using them.   We may not completely eradicate the plastic shopping bag in this way, but we can dramatically reduce the number of them that are produced each year. 

And that, my friends, would be a very good thing for this wounded planet of ours!


  1. Yippee! I remember to bring the damn bags to Trader Joe's tonight. Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps....from car to trunk, from trunk to store, from store to home. Now I just have to remember to put the bags back in the car for the next shopping expedition.

    See, change really can happen!

  2. Well done. Our last Sustainable FIlm Series screening here at the Suffolk Center campus was the documentary, BAG IT. The film examined the American love affair with all things plastic in an extremely eye-opening way.


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