Pollution is in the bag
Suffocating in a sea of plastic, nations and cities produce solutions
When the Italian government banned plastic shopping bags on Jan. 1 this year, it reminded me of the George Carlin routine where he suggests we shouldn't worry about all the pollution we're creating since, at the end of the day, maybe the earth actually wanted all that plastic. Maybe the only reason humans were created was to produce plastic and, now that we have, we’re disposable.
Mother Nature is pretty resilient and, let’s face it, she doesn’t really need us. Still, we do use a lot of plastic bags.
The now-ambient plastic shopping bag started out as a great idea, but they’re drowning the entire planet. Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin figured out how to make them back in the early 1960s and got the patent (Trivia Pursuit fun: the U.S. Patent number 5669504) for the Celloplast Company in 1965.
Last year, worldwide, human beings consumed an estimated 500 million to 1 trillion of the little suckers. In other words, about 1 million plastic bags were consumed every minute. Seriously. Every minute.
Crazier yet, that’s about 15,854 per second – and that’s just the litter, the landfill, and the ocean-clotting mess. Over a hundred thousand sea critters die every year from eating or being choked by plastic bags – including our cousins on the intelligence scale, like whales and dolphins.
What about the amount of petroleum it takes? The United States uses about 100 billion bags a year, according to the Worldwatch Institute, and 100 billion bags require about 12 million barrels of oil (or $500 billion worth at current prices). Put another way, the amount of oil it takes to make just 14 plastic bags would run my car for a mile.
A lot of countries, and a number of U.S. cities, are ahead of us in the race to keep from drowning in this rising tide of plastic bags. They’ve used outright bans, charged customers a nickle a bag, and even imposed tax levies. Italy’s ban went into effect this year following earlier bans in Belgium, Australia, Bangladesh, South Africa, Thailand, and Hong Kong – to name a few. San Francisco imposed restrictions in 2007 and Los Angeles County followed suit last year.
Here at home in Wisconsin, Roundy’s is already offering a nickle credit for every time you bring in your own reusable shopping bag. They introduced this program in 2009 at Pick’n Save, Copps, Rainbow, and Metro Market stores in Wisconsin and Minnesota. This saves them money and it’s a great way to encourage people to cut back on their plastic bag habit -- but a lot of other places have taken bigger and more effective, win-win steps.
Instead of giving you a nickle for using a reusable shopping bag, a lot of municipalities required stores to charge a nickle for each bag. That doesn’t sound like a big deal. I’d suspect most people would say “Whatever, give me the darned bag.” But, the effects, where they’ve tried it, have been big.
Washington, D.C., for instance, put a 5-cent levy on each bag in 2010 and consumption fell from 22.5 million to 3 million bags in the first month. Ireland did it in 2002 (reduction: 90 percent) and after China started charging for each bag in 2008, they reduced their consumption by two-thirds. One of Canada’s largest grocers began charging 5 cents a bag in June 2009 and reported a 50 percent fall-off in demand just a month later. Since then demand has fallen by 80 percent.
American Samoa banned ’em outright. So has San Jose, California and even Brownsville, Texas. San Jose studied the question for two full years before putting together an ordinance that prohibits retailers from giving out free plastic bags at check out and requires them to charge for paper.
In California only about 5 percent of plastic bags were being recycled so recycling by itself wasn’t working.
San Jose didn’t just jump into this decision either: two years means they thought about it. The City Council took a long hard look at the problem, including the financial and tax implications for municipal landfill, garbage collection and environmental impact – and they banned plastic shopping bags.
We should start thinking about it too.
If the Italian government -- the Italian government -- was able to make this happen, why not us?
Or maybe George Carlin was right.