Plastic shopping bags. They certainly serve a purpose. They are cheap and easy to produce and their light weight makes them ideal to keep shipping costs down. Reused, they make great liners for small trash cans or a convenient way to carry all sorts of things. But an image I will never forget was the very first time I visited a landfill and saw plastic bags clearly visible in every nearby tree looking somewhat a layer of spider webs. Years later, I learned that one of our local landfills even trained a monkey to climb the trees and retrieve these pesky air blown things! It’s not just a problem in landfills. You see them virtually everywhere; on roadsides, stuck in shrubbery and telephone wires, and in bodies of water. Yuck.
Of course, litter is not the only environmental concern with these and obviously this is not a new issue. But, I found it interesting to learn that plastic bags were once seen as the more environmentally friendly alternative to paper bags. More recent reports seem to find both equally as bad and conclude that using reusable bags instead is the much better choice environmentally. The energy and resources required to make just one plastic bag might not be terribly significant, but why are we mass producing and using so many in this country? To me that is the bigger concern.
On June 18th, Los Angeles adopted an ordinance banning the use of plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and some retailers. This will make Los Angeles the largest city in the United States to implement a single-use ban. Though California has been among the most progressive states in enacting environmental policy, Los Angeles is not alone in banning plastic shopping bags. Chicago, Aspen, and Eugene, Oregon have also implemented similar bans. Many others are also looking into charging a fee on bags. To most in the United States this seems like a drastic measure. However, it’s common practice among many European countries. The cultural norm is you bring your bag with you when you go shopping, or you often have to pay for one at the store. It makes perfect sense, after all plastic bags are not free. But here in the United States where putting items in a bag when purchased is common practice (often even if you are only purchasing one item that could easily be carried out), we don’t think about the cost because the cost is already included in everything we purchase! We are paying for it, like it or not.
Because of the cultural norm being so different in the U.S., naturally there is a lot of resistance in this country for a ban. Other states, like New York, have tried the less progressive approach to increase the recycling of plastic bags by requiring retailers to offer a recycling programs to their customers. The effectiveness of these programs is questionable and don’t reduce the number of plastic bags produced.
Colleges and Universities have looked at the issue. Tufts, California State University of Long Beach, University of Oregon, and Ithaca College have all lobbied to ban bags and actively encourage the use of reusable bags. Earlier this year, the University of Rochester’s Team Green began a similar campaign to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. Although there was some support, those who were against this idea were quite adamant. You will see quite the debate in the comments of our blog post on the topic. I wonder if there would be the same amount of push-back for a ban on bags? I tend to think that people are a bit more passionate when it comes to food and beverages. But, there is definitely a large number of people who believe in their right to choose and want to preserve that right, regardless of what the issue is. A strict ban on anything would be out of the question for these invidiuals.
Perhaps a compromise could be reached at the University some day, or a campaign to promote reusable bags on campus will begin. Plastic bags are most definitely ending up in our waste stream and we pay to have them hauled to a landfill. A few small student initiatives to collect and recycle bags have been formed, with not much impact. In my opinion, the way to be more successful is through source reduction. While I do not believe that banning plastic bags altogether is the ultimate answer, I’m all for doing it in campus setting.