Plastic Grocery Bags: Who needs ’em?

Plastic bags have become the most blatant symbol of our throw-away-society. Four out of five grocery bags in the US are plastic, which means 100 billion bags a year. 12 million barrels of oil are used to make them. 4 billion bags end up as litter that didn’t make it to a landfill. Over one billion birds and mammals each year are killed by ingesting these bags.

True, some end up as lunch bags, book bags, gym bags, trash can liners and doggie poop bags. But more end up littering roadsides, seeping into soils, lakes, rivers, and oceans. They clog roadside drains and fill sea turtle bellies.

Those of us with farms somewhere in our background can recall a time when just about everything was recycled. That was the reason we saved everything that might come in handy someday, a mindset that marked us as New Englanders. I grew up in a home where a braided rug was a conversation piece about my brother’s old plaid shirt, my old skirt, Dad’s trousers, and on down through the contribution of every member of the family. The prize-winning quilts my grandmother made for us, she made out of grain bags. Grain used to come in bright colored prints of broadcloth.

Today, we need to bring our throw-away mentality into balance with our recycle-everything history.

In the 70s, when plastic bags were first introduced, people were encouraged to buy SAVE A TREE canvas tote bags that had a big green tree on them along with the logo. The first thing I noticed when I used one was that the bag not only held more groceries, it didn’t break! Environmental groups, libraries, and other fund raisers also began selling canvas tote bags which encouraged people to save the environment.

Today, some countries charge a tax for bags. Ireland’s 15 cent tax resulted in a 95 percent reduction in their use and by 2002, just about everyone there was carrying a reusable bag. As far back as 1978, Switzerland had stopped supplying bags to grocery customers. As travelers, we had the option of buying one of those European mesh bags at the grocery store if we didn’t bring our own.

The American Plastics council resists the tax, saying it would cost the loss of thousands of jobs, increase energy consumption and landfill space, and store owners would rely on more expensive paper bags. Another way of looking at this problem would be to ask the question: How can our existing workforce switch the production of plastic bags to biodegradable earth- friendly packaging that does not require the use of 12 million barrels of oil to produce, that takes up less landfill space, and encourages shoppers to bring their own grocery bags? If Ireland can do it, why on earth can’t we do it?

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