Written By Janine December 2011
A Convenience Charge for Disposable Shopping Bags
It’s Sunday afternoon. The local grocery store is crowded with customers who are loading their carts with groceries for the week. Women are busy hushing their demanding children while others are determined to complete their shopping and continue with their busy day. As they wait in line to checkout, consumers enjoy a little downtime where they browse through the magazines or eye the selection of chocolate bars. The last thing they’re worried about is whether the next decision they make can help solve the world’s pollution problems. Upon checkout, the cashier conveniently places all the goods in several plastic bags while the customer is busy swiping, reading and signing the automated payment system. Ten minutes later, they’re home and the goods are taken out of the plastic bags. They carefully put their groceries away before the plastic bags are gathered and thrown into the trash. To us, what we throw away disappears from our sight and we never expect to see it or worry about it again.
Unfortunately, this type of consumer mentality is unhealthy for our environment. Everything we throw away doesn’t just disappear; it ends up in overflowing landfills or harming animals. We are accustomed to the way we shop and see no reason to add another responsibility to our already busy schedule, especially if it doesn’t directly or immediately benefit us. Consumers ignore one solution that will help alleviate our world of plastic and paper bags. The solution is reusable shopping bags. It is necessary to enact laws that will force customers to help protect the environment by charging customers for utilizing disposable plastic and paper shopping bags.
Disposable plastic bags harm and kill animals. According to Earth Resource Foundation, an environmental education non-profit organization, countless plastic bags journey into our oceans and harm marine wildlife. Once plastic reaches the ocean, marine animals and birds ingest it thinking its food. Environmentalists say that turtles often swallow these plastic bags because they mistake them as jellyfish (“Campaign” par. 6). Because plastic is indigestible, it accumulates inside of the sea turtle’s stomach and gets so impacted to the point that the turtle’s system shuts down. With nobody to help, the starving sea turtle dies a long slow death. Rochelle Ferris, a marine biologist, says a giant sea turtle that was found dead had most likely starved to death due to plastic ingestion. When they performed a necropsy on the giant sea turtle, they were disturbed to find 317 pieces of plastic including three varieties of plastic bags, blue, black, and clear. She says 36% of sea turtles are affected by plastic debris (Cranston, par. 1, 3, 4, 12).
During the same year of this giant sea turtle’s death, a female Beaked Whale fell ill after swallowing a white plastic bag. When communities came together to try and save her, it was too late, as a chain reaction in the other organs of her body eventually caused her to collapse and die (Ries, par. 1-2). According to several sources, it is estimated that over a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year because of plastic debris (”Campaign” par. 7, Ries, par. 4, “Plastic Bags” par. 3). This is a large estimate, but we must bear in mind that plastic doesn’t disappear once ingested by an animal. Once the body of the animals decomposes, the plastic is free to threaten more animals. No one really knows how long this cycle will continue.
Plastic bags are hazardous for our environment because they are made of petroleum, which is commonly known to be toxic to almost all form of life. In addition, plastic bags take one thousand years to decompose on land and 450 years in water (“Campaign” par. 6). Just imagine, each and every plastic bag we has a life of one thousand years, yet we typically use them for no more than thirty minutes. According to Reuseit.com, a company dedicated to reusable goods, America uses 100 billion plastic bags each year. Given this statistic, one can extrapolate that over ten years, a trillion bags have been used in America alone. The majority of plastic bags are not being recycled, which is no surprise since most Americans are extremely busy. Only 0.5% to 3% of plastic bags are recycled, which means with the most conservative figure of 3%, 970 million of the bags Americans use this year alone, will be around for the next thousand years (“Facts” par. 6, 15). Over ten years, it equates to 970 billion non-recycled plastic bags in our landfills and oceans. According to The Christian Science Monitor, an international news organization, processing and recycling one ton of plastic bags cost $4,000. This same ton can be turned around and sold in the commodities market for $32 (Arnoldy, pg. 2, par. 8). Thus, there is no incentive for businesses to recycle plastic bags, so we continue to produce billions of new ones to live indefinitely with us and threaten the livelihood of our planet and its animals. It’s easy to see that plastic bags can be very detrimental to our environment whether we recycle them or not.
“Paper or plastic?” We proudly respond “paper” even as we watch them double or even triple bag the paper bags. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that paper is always better than plastic when it comes to the environment. We see it when we step into Wholefoods, Mother’s Market, and Trader Joe’s; these grocery stores support paper bags and customers gladly accept them. Darby Hoover, a Solid Waste and Recycling Expert at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), states that America uses 10 billion paper grocery bags each year, requiring an estimated 12 million barrels of oil and 14 millions trees (“San Francisco” par. 3). As we know, with fewer trees there is less oxygen produced and more carbon dioxide in the air. This affects the quality of air humans and animals breathe; it’s like taking a fish tank full of goldfish and slowly turning down the oxygen system.
As for those who take the time to recycle their paper bags, only 10% of those paper bags are actually being recycled (“Myth” par. 8). This means only 1 billion are being recycled annually, where as 9 billion remain as trash and end up in landfills. Green Club Inc., a distributor who believes in sustainability, says paper bags use 300% more energy to produce than plastic bags. Consequently, when they degrade they emit methane and carbon dioxide (“Addiflex” pg. 3, par. 7). Thus, we are heavily affecting our environment for the excessive and unnecessary production of paper bags. On top of that, we barely recycle them, causing more environmental pollution.
My method of motivating consumers to use reusable bags in America is to charge 25 cents per paper and plastic bag required, while shopping at grocery and other stores. Some grocery stores understand the issues and have initiated programs to incentivize consumers to bring reusable bags. Such stores provide an incentive by reducing our grocery bill by 5 cents to 10 cents per bag used upon checkout. Another incentive is the use of raffle tickets for each reusable bag used with a chance to win free groceries. However, we still see more people leaving the store with plastic and paper bags then we do with reusable bags.
During a personal interview, I asked Stephanie Barger, Executive Director and Founder of Earth Resource Foundation, for her expert opinion and advice. She was truly passionate about my topic. When I asked why she thought consumers choose not to use reusable bags, she said “we’re addicted to convenience and grocery stores aren’t doing anything to help.” As a result, “we spend $350,000 per year [in Orange County] to maintain plastic bags from getting out of the landfill when they blow out.” When I asked her what price she thought would be effective in encouraging consumers to switch to reusable bags, she said, “Charging 25 cents [per paper and plastic bag] is fabulous. It’s not about charging, it’s about getting people to use reusable bags.” Hence, charging for grocery bags is a necessary step in helping consumers adopt the reusable bag.
Charging for plastic and paper bags in America decreases consumer choices. In America, we are prideful of our freedom and the numerous options we have to choose from. After all, America is by far the largest consumer country. Wherever and whenever we shop, we expect our goods to be placed in provided bags at no charge like we expect complimentary peanuts on an airplane or free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. However, these are granted to us and therefore making them privileges we can enjoy but don’t necessarily need. Therefore, protecting our health, environment, and animals is more important than the short-lived convenience of plastic and paper bags. It also doesn’t justify the endless damage to our eco system or our wildlife.
Other countries, such as Ireland and Australia, demonstrate that a shopping bag fee is effective. According to Jon Dee, founder of Planet Ark Environmental Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to showing people and businesses how to reduce their impact at home, work, and the planet, consumers in Ireland were using 92% fewer plastic bags within six months when charged $.25 Irish Pound, or $0.42 US, per plastic bag. Similarly, when Australia started charging $.10 Australian Dollar, also $0.10 US, per plastic bag, they saw an 87% decrease in usage (Dee, pg. 1, par. 4, 10). This demonstrates how charging consumers for bags can make a huge difference. Thus, a 25 cents fee per plastic or paper bag would be impactful in America.
In America, San Francisco and Washington DC took the initiative to ban plastic bags or charge consumers a plastic bag fee. According to Business Ethics, an online magazine dedicated to corporate responsibility, San Francisco was the first city to ban plastic bags entirely in large supermarkets and pharmacies in March 2007. As a result, they saw a 50 percent drop in bag litter on the streets (Lindsey, par. 3). According to Treehugger.com, Washington DC instated a five cents fee on plastic bags in January 2010. As a result, grocery stores and other establishments were handing out 3 million plastic bags in January 2010 versus 22.5 million in January 2009. This means that there were 19 million fewer plastic bags in local landfills. In addition, the city generated $150,000 in revenue from the plastic bag tax and used it to clean up the Anacostia River (Merchant, par. 1). All it took was 5 cents to reduce the amount of plastic bags used by 87%. If America was able to reduce its use of plastic bags by 87%, that would amount to approximately 870 million bags per year.
When I spoke to Darby Hoover, she said that “Consumers need to realize that paper or plastic is a false choice. Once consumers realize they have choices beyond paper or plastic, they become empowered and start to think more about the product they buy, whether to buy in bulk and how to get packages home.” Therefore, charging for paper and plastic bags is not a matter of eliminating consumer’s choices. Instead, it brings options beyond what consumers have been accustomed to and creates a different habit of reasoning. For example, instead of having the disposable mentality of paper or plastic, consumers may think out of the box and realize their options.
As the primary household shopper, I understand that going grocery shopping is enough of a responsibility let alone remembering to bring reusable bags. Furthermore, I understand that paying for reusable bags can seem impractical when plastic and paper bags are free. However, adopting the reusable bag is not as painful as one may think. Suppose we spend $15 for five durable and washable reusable bags. According to Reusethisbag.com, “The average reusable bag has the lifespan of over seven hundred disposable plastic bags. (“25 Reasons” par. 25). Additionally, the National Green Pages says the average American consumer goes to the grocery store about twice a week, accumulating an average of 30 bags a week (“Kicking” par. 2). That’s over 1,500 bags a year for each consumer. If we do the math, two reusable bags could replace a year’s worth of plastic bags. We can easily see how reusable bags can make a difference. I found that investing in durable and attractive reusable bags has repaid itself ten times over as other shoppers continue to compliment and ask where I purchased them. For me, this means I’m making an impact. It feels good to be doing something good for our planet while encouraging my fellow shoppers to follow a healthy habit.
Some consumers fear that reusable bags promote cross-contamination of foods. Keep in mind that some people have cleaner habits than others. Like anything else we use, bath towels, a pair of jeans or blankets, we need to wash them every now and then. According to Montgomery County of Maryland, consumers should not worry about cross contamination if they wash their reusable bags periodically and clean them with anti-bacterial wipes. Studies conclude that hand washing or machine-washing reusable bags kills more than 99.9% of bacteria (par. 27). In fact, Consumer Reports says the American Chemistry Council funded a study where reusable bags were randomly collected in California and Arizona. Researchers didn’t see anything to be concerned about as they did not find any pathological bacteria such as salmonella, listeria, or E. coli on the reusable bags (“Can” par. 2, 6). As a reusable bag user of about four years, I have not experienced any illnesses from reusable bags, and I wash them about once a month or whenever I feel necessary. If cleanliness is still a factor for consumers, there are reusable bags with anti-bacterial and anti-microbial coating flooding the market.
It is environmentally essential that America encourage consumers to switch to reusable bags by charging 25 cents per plastic and paper bag. The case has been proven in Australia and Ireland as well as two major cities in the US. Disposable bags are a convenience that does more harm than it does good. Furthermore, it’s another privilege we have that we can proudly live without. We may not like change, however, the reusable bag only asks that we change a part of our shopping routine. They are easily obtainable at grocery stores or online and promise a much longer life span than its harmful counterpart. Since reusable bags have been proven sanitary, we don’t need to worry about our well-being while helping the planet. Thus, reusable shopping bags are the solution to reducing the harm we cause to animals and our planet. For that reason, I believe that a national law is warranted so that we can practice shopping wisely with our reusable bags, a bag that not only carries our goods but also helps our environment in so many ways today and in the future.
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