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Writer's Desk

October 4, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 22

Claire Schaeffer-DuffyKicking the plastic bag habit

by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor

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Like many Americans, I am still digesting the details of Hurricane Katrina. The storm that exposed so many of our flaws have also revealed the consequences of using products that leave a large and lasting footprint on the environment. Last week, The Boston Globe reported that Katrina's winds spilled at least 8 million gallons of oil on the protective marshlands and citrus groves of the Gulf Coast and scattered 22 million tons of debris on the streets of the Big Easy. After reading the story, I kept thinking of all the non-biodegradable trash that will be hauled away and crammed into bulging dumps only to be replaced by more non-biodegradable products once reconstruction begins.

While I brooded on yet another reminder of the unsustainable habits of the American consumer, my husband Scott sewed cloth grocery bags. With the help of friends and fellow Catholic Worker Mike Benedetti, he plans to give away more than 50 canvas shopping bags in early November at our local Big Y Supermarket. The project's purpose is to encourage shoppers to reduce their consumption of paper and plastic bags.

In many parts of the world, shopping for food remains a luscious adventure in texture and color. By contrast, a trip to a U.S. supermarket is an experience in packaging overkill. Eggs, already in a sturdy carton, frozen orange juice, even the shrink-wrapped vegetables fortified with a Styrofoam tray are typically placed in individual plastic bags. If we were a society of walkers, I could better understand the need for providing so many lightweight bags with durable handles; but most of us are transporting groceries short distances -- from the shopping cart to the car, from the driveway to the front door.

Americans reportedly use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags a year, consuming 12 million barrels in oil. Paper bags, while less of a pollutant, consume trees that take decades to replace.

Like so many products that are produced cheaply and consumed in staggeringly high quantities, plastic bags linger long after their usefulness is over. They do not biodegrade but photo-degrade in the sun by breaking up into small pieces, a process that takes between 20 to 1,000 years. The small toxic bits known as "plastic dust" contaminate the soil and waterways and enter the food chain.

Plastic bags slow down decomposition in landfills, kill farm animals, choke marine life and ruin dramatic, natural vistas. Over the past decade they have become one of the most common coastal pollutants.

In the United States, where land still abounds, the encroachment of the plastic bag is not always evident. But in more densely populated regions of the world they have become an environmental hazard too obvious to ignore. In the Indian state of Maharashtra, plastic bags clogging storm drains exacerbated a flood that killed a thousand people. A similar catastrophe occurred in Bangladesh, where bags obstructing drains were a major culprit in floods that submerged two-thirds of the country.

To stem the plastic bag invasion, some countries in Asia and Africa have taken strong measures by imposing crippling fines on distributors. Pakistan and Eritrea have banned them outright as has the capital of Bangladesh and some regions in India. Taiwan prohibits free distribution of plastic bags and utensils. (Prior to the ban, the country's 20 million inhabitants were using 2.5 bags per person per day.) In South Africa, where plastic bags have been dubbed the "national flower" because so many can be seen flapping from bushes, the government has outlawed the very thin single use bag. Distributors can be sentenced to 10 years in prison or $13,000 in fines.

In China, the prevalence of the plastic bag has generated vigorous discussion. One editorial in a Chinese daily recommended adding a fourth R to the maxim, "reduce, re-use recycle" to encourage consumers to "refuse" plastic packaging provided by stores.

Three years ago, the Republic of Ireland initiated the Plastax, a 15-cent-per-bag tax levied on shoppers. Within a year of its implementation, the tax reduced the country's consumption of plastic shopping bags (approximately 1.2 billion annually) by 90 percent and raised 10 million in euros, which were spent on environmental programs. Plastax's success has attracted the interest of legislators in Great Britain and Australia, which in 2002 introduced a two-year voluntary program to curtail plastic bag use.

Although a few American cities have implemented their own bag tax, there is no national initiative to change our shopping habits. In January 2005, San Francisco's Commission on the Environment asked legislators to consider levying a 17-cent-per-bag charge on paper and plastic grocery bags.

This is San Franciso's second bag-tax initiative. Two years earlier, city residents were considering legislation that would impose a two-cent-per bag tax charge on retailers. Supporters of the Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) movement pointed out that the law mistakenly targeted retailers when change must begin with the consumer. I agree. Our communities would benefit from a Plastax but while we work and wait for such legislation we can exemplify the change we desire and stop consuming so much paper and plastic. Even a modest reduction will benefit this fragile planet we occupy.

Kicking the plastic bag habit is not so hard to do. It only requires remembering to BYOB every time you head for the store.

Related Web Site: www.reusablebags.com

Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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