Plastic bags have some desirable traits. They require less energy and water to make than paper bags. Their impermeability means that they won’t become a gooey, soggy mess over a little rotten egg. But the very thing that makes plastic bags so attractive must also make them an environmental catastrophe.
The problem with plastic bags is that they are made of plastic, which can take more than 1,000 years to biodegrade, has a number of ill effects on human health, and, as litter, can kill seabirds and other marine life. Plus, there are just too many of them (check out this bibliography on plastic debris).
According to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., plastic factories in 2002 produced between 4 and 5 trillion plastic bags, ranging from large trash bags to thin grocery sacks. Communities around the globe have taken to cutting down on plastic bags via market incentives or regulations.
Here are the possible treatments for the plastic bag epidemic:
1) User rebate. Stores can offer a user rebate. For instance, at Lululemon, Vancouver’s posh yoga store, shoppers can save a few cents by not taking a bag. The problem with this option is that users have to opt out of using the bag to save money. The default setting is still usage.
2) User tax. As Josh mentioned, last week, the mayor of Seattle announced his proposal to charge 20 cents for every bag, paper or plastic, used at grocery or drugstores. While this was the first of such initiatives in the U.S., Scandinavian countries have charged for bags for more than a decade and, in Ireland, bags have been taxed since 2002, which has resulted in a reduction in bag use by a supposed 90 percent.
3) Outright ban. But 90 percent is not good enough for some communities. The city of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, was the first city in Canada to totally ban the plastic bag and they did so in April last year. Just two weeks ago, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to prohibit plastic bags in large markets and drug stores and require biodegradable plastic or recyclable paper sacks. But why limit a ban to cities? Plastic bags were banned in all of Uganda in June of last year and France plans to phase out use by 2010. Many cities and nations, however, opt for the last option.
4) Do nothing.
The first two options use the market, the third uses the government/democracy, and the fourth and predominant choice so far, employs good old-fashioned apathy. Which is best?
Moreover, why is my current home of Vancouver lagging so far behind in all of this? Why should the city that spawned Greenpeace and David Suzuki be outdone by Leaf Rapids and Uganda? With Earth Day fast approaching, Vancouver has a great opportunity to quit being so plastic.