Trashing plastic bags.

It’s so easy to denounce plastic shopping bags. They start to tear before you’ve finished filling them. They’re a waste of the oil used in their manufacture. They wind up in landfills by the millions, or floating along roadsides, or in the stomachs of marine mammals.

Some cities have proposed or enacted grocery-bag fees to discourage use. Other municipalities (and countries) have banned them outright.

Eventually plastic bags will no longer be a fixture in our lives. And I’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Wait! Don’t send the green squad over to tie a shopping sack over my head! I’m as dismayed by the waste of petroleum and the ubiquitous litter as anyone else. That scene from “American Beauty” of the plastic bag dancing in the wind was cute – but the moviemakers didn’t address the fact that the bag had to come down sometime.

What I’ll miss is all those free trash bags. I generate very little trash – Seattle recycles even food waste – so I have no need for a big garbage can. The small one I picked up at the dollar store is just the right size to be filled by a plastic shopping sack.

It won’t break the bank once I have to start buying trashcan liners. But, um, won’t they be made of plastic, too?

Some scary stats

With the rising cost of gasoline and other oil-related products, and especially in light of the ongoing Gulf spill trauma, it behooves us to use fewer bags. The environmental price we pay is a steep one, according to a website called ReusableBags.com:

  • The modern world uses more than 500 billion plastic bags each year.
  • According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (It takes approximately 12 million barrels of oil to make them.)
  • Untold numbers of sea turtles, whales and other animals eat plastic bags and die.
  • Plastic bags break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits, contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food chain when animals accidentally ingest them. Single-use HDPE bags will “persist on our planet” for up to one thousand years.
  • According to a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags are dispersed throughout Antarctic waters.
  • An industry publication called Modern Plastics reported that Taiwan once went through 20 billion bags a year, or 900 per person. Last year Taiwan banned plastic bags and utensils.

Scary stuff. But be honest: I bet some of you will also miss this versatile, disposable resource.

The lowly shopping bag carries your good shoes in the winter. It cushions fragile materials for mailing. And one day all you dog owners are going to have to buy poop bags.

Some believe that plastic bags are hard to eliminate entirely. For example, Seattle is a city that wants desperately to be green. Yet a proposed bag ban excluded certain small businesses. The measure failed at the polls, but I bet future iterations will also have exclusions.

So maybe I’ll have my trashcan liners a bit longer.

Reduce, reuse – and fly kites?

For the past few years I’ve drastically cut my plastic bag use. Currently I own half a dozen reusable shopping sacks, all obtained for free from sources like street fairs and supermarket promotions.

Well, except for the bag I bought for one cent at a university’s lost-and-found sale. (Worth every penny I paid!)

I keep at least one of these folded up in my backpack at all times. It comes in handy if, say, I find an unadvertised special.

There are other ways to deal with residual plastics, according to Myscha Theriault of Wise Bread. In her essay, “The plastic bag dilemma: Seven strategies for coping,” she suggested, among other things:

  • Stuffing accent pillows or curtain valances
  • Using bags as faux painting tools
  • Turning them into kites (which takes the “American Beauty” thing a step further)

Theriault also suggests keeping a tally, right on the bag, of how many times it gets used before finally giving up the ghost. At which point, I suppose, you could use it as packing material.

If your city doesn’t have a mandatory recycling program, check supermarkets and department stores for recycling bins. Bags may also be welcome at food banks or charity thrift shops, so ask around.

Just don’t take them outside and expect them to dance. Real life isn’t a movie.


18 Comments

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I made some reusable grocery bags out of old blue jeans (I work in a chem lab so my jeans ALWAYS get holes in them). I have been using them so extensively that now I’ve pretty much run out of bags to use when I clean out the litterbox!

    I’m afraid that at some point, I will have to buy bags to use for this purpose….

  2. Deedee

    Maybe once in a while don’t bring your reuseable bags with you to the grocery store so you can get a few more plastic bags for the litter box, dog walking, trash can liners, etc. I don’t think that is any more wasteful than buying plastic bags for this purpose. Unless they charge for them, then you might as well buy a supply I guess?

    Our grocery store charges for bags, but if you have forgotten your bag they will give you a cardboard box for free.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Deedee: That’s how I handle it now. I have a decent stash of bags and am going to use up most of them before I start “forgetting” my shopping bag again.
      Another place I find trashcan liners: Blowing down the street, or caught in the hedges in front of my apartment building. :-( At least I’m helping de-litter somewhat.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  3. Deedee

    Good for you Donna – picking up litter and finding a use for it is the best!!!

    Thanks for writing – I enjoy reading your posts.

  4. Just me

    I’m with you 100%, Donna. It’s not the bags that are evil. In our household, every bag (grocery store bags, produce bags, bags from product packaging) is put to use, for lining trashcans, cleaning litterboxes, whatever. Maybe they just need to get stricter with recycling rules, as they have done for other kinds of recyclables. We also use the reusable shopping sacks, unless we are low on the plastic bags.

  5. Donna Freedman

    @Deedee: Thanks for reading — I enjoy the comments!

  6. The two grocery stores here in town charge for bags, but the other retail stores don’t, so there is still a source for free bags. That being said, I’ve been using my own bags for groceries for a couple of years now, but I too like the plastic ones for garbage.

    As for poop bags – feed your dogs a raw diet, and you’ll never have to pick up the yard again (true!), and the bags the newspapers (free ones delivered 3 times per week here) are great to use on walks, etc. when you want to pick ‘em up :)

    Great blog!!

    • Donna Freedman

      @K.B.: I save my newspaper bags for my sister to use while walking the dog. That is, when there IS a bag — the carrier uses them only when it’s really rainy or windy.
      Also, what do you mean about the raw diet? How does it keep you from having to scoop?

  7. Alas, I am at the point where I buy “poop bags” for my dogs and cat litter box. I use bread wrappers, etc first, but I haven’t carried any purchase home in a plastic bag in a long time. I did find doggy bags that claim to be biodegradable.

    I didn’t buy any of my 15 reusable bags. They were all the result of giveaways at conferences, stores, etc. I use them for just about everything except poop, even carrying shoes in the winter. They are washable (they really need to be washed after carrying raw chicken or fish…. or shoes).

    • Donna Freedman

      @Dee: To be biodegradable, wouldn’t the bags need air and sunlight? Not sure. But they sure won’t get those things in a landfill. Sigh.
      And yeah, shopping bags are the advertising premium of choice these days. One of mine says “2010 U.S. Census.” I found it lying on the ground at the University of Washington.
      Thanks for reading.

  8. Do the bans include the plastic bags used for produce? That’s what I use for many of the things you listed.

    • Donna Freedman

      @H Lee D: In Seattle, produce bags (and takeout containers and tableware) would have to be biodegradable. I save produce bags for such things, too. The ones I find in supermarket parking lots go to my sister for her pooch.
      Thanks for reading, fellow Jerseyite.

  9. This whole ban thing is so hypocritical. As you pointed out, stores sell plastic trash bags. Seems to me that when the country, world, whatever is really serious about this, there will be a viable alternative–perhaps bags that really do degrade in landfills, melt in water, or something that truly works. I use the plastic bags all the time, mostly for trash. I will not buy trash bags. On a positive note, our trash removal company recently distributed big blue trash cans for recyclables. I love having this option. Not the final solution to this very real problem, but a positive step.

  10. Raw diet – raw meat, bones and organs. There are many variations (some include fruit and veggies), but it gets dogs (and cats and ferrets) off of kibble, which is mostly grain. Dogs (and cats and ferrets) are carnivores, and have no requirement for grain.

    Warning: poop talk ahead :)

    The bulk in a kibble-fed dog’s poop is mostly grain, since it’s undigested. And for whatever reason, kibble poop sits, and sits, and sits, unaffected by rain or sleet or snow. Raw poop is MUCH smaller, and disappears rapidly. Dog #1 has been on raw for over a year, and I haven’t picked up the back yard in that time, and honestly, you can’t tell. There may be 1-2 days worth of poop, but it’s generally dry, crumbly (depending on the amount of bone in the previous meal), and very little smell. Dog #2 is a recent adoption (4 months!), and even with twice the amount, I still don’t notice it in the yard. Mind you , I have no children playing in the yard, and if I did, or was having a garden party (or some such foolishness), I’d clean up whatever was there. I also have relatively small dogs, but they eat ~1/2 a pound of meat daily, and their “output” is exponentially smaller than their input.

    Most people, who live in an area that gets snow, dread spring and the required yard clean-up of a winter’s worth of poop. On a raw diet, there is not a poop to be seen.

    I do still pick up on walks and at other people’s houses, of course.

    I do have a raw food blog with links in the sidebar (you can get there through my blogger profile), and there are MANY resources on the web. Of course, many vets and “experts” warn against raw food, so to each their own, but for me, I won’t go back to kibble, just as I don’t eat processed food for every meal.

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  12. Well, I can remember when grocery stores first started using plastic bags, and how much I hated the things. You used to get small lunch-bag size paper bags in the produce and big brown paper bags at the checkout. The paper bags didn’t fall over in the trunk and spill stuff all over the car, and the exactly fit into a kitchen wastebasket. And even back in those Dark Ages we knew how nasty plastic bags were for the environment.

    Resistance, however, was futile.

    LOL! Now I think I’m going to hate whatever they make us use this time. I never throw out an empty plastic bag, and except for the occasional Ziplock freezer bag, I hardly ever buy plastic bags. If we’re to be expected to bring our own cloth or mesh shopping bags instead of being given paper bags (no discount on the grocery bills for that, BTW), then I’ll end up having to buy plastic bags to take the place of all the shopping bags from the checkout stand.

    What’s the difference between using plastic bags that you get for free at the store and buying plastic bags? Except, of course, that once again the working stiff gets stiffed…

  13. Hmmm, this article showed up in my inbox today, so here are my two cents………I use plastic bags for all things mentioned above except as a poop bag. I use plastic bags to make rugs and tote bags to give as gifts and sell on my front porch. My products carry a lifetime guarantee..

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