If there's a symbol of modern unsustainability, it's got to be the plastic bag. While a growing number of consumers are bringing their own totes to supermarkets and hardware stores, plastic bags remain ubiquitous. And bothersome. They get caught in trees, wind up where our fish can mistake them for food, and clog sidewalk drains. Many local communities view these bags -- about a trillion are produced around the world each year -- as an environmental scourge, and are starting to fight back.
Some national, state, and local governments are enacting bans and fees on plastic bags with great results. When Washington, DC started charging consumers 5¢per bag in 2010, citywide consumption of plastic bags dropped 87% overnight -- from 22.5 million bags a month to just 3 million -- and millions in bag fees were raised for river clean-up efforts. Ireland did the same thing in 2002 but charges about 30¢ per bag. Usage rates there fell even further and today some 94% fewer bags are used.
Not everyone is happy about plastic bag bans, including the plastic industry. But some consumers also object because they like the convenience of free bags at checkout. That explains why there are a lot more proposals to do something about plastic bags than there are actual laws on the books. But when rules are passed, amazing things happen.
Italy went all the way to the mat and enacted a complete bag ban that took effect on January 1st of 2011. Everybody was mad -- shoppers, retailers, bag makers, you name it. But five months later there are no bags blowing in the wind and consumers have gotten used to bringing their own reusables and feel good about complying.
Chances are there aren't any fees or bans on bags where you live. But you can institute your own. We keep a jar by the front door. Every time we forget our cloth bags or for some reason come home with one made of plastic, we put a quarter in the jar. When the jar is full, which happens less and less these days as we train ourselves to get into the reusable habit, some environmental organization gets a check. It's surprisingly effective. And until there's a ban or a tax where we live, we're doing what needs to get done to keep the planet from getting sacked.
How do you remember to bring reusable bags to the store?
The Inkslinger has written about environmental issues for over 20 years and is a freelance writer for some of America's most iconoclastic companies and non-profits. His true loves include nature, music of the Americana/rock and roll variety, interior design, books, old things, good stories, pagan rituals, and his wife of 24 years, with whom he lives in an undisclosed chemical-free rural Vermont location along with his teenage daughter and two infinitely hilarious Australian shepherds!