“Paper or plastic?” was the common refrain at the checkout line of many grocery stores and other markets. Disposable plastic bags were inexpensive to make and easy to use. Although they did not hold as many items as paper grocery bags, the built-in handholds made them an easy way to carry purchases from the store to the car. However, it did not take long to realize that the short-term convenience of plastic bags presented some long-term problems.
The Problem of Plastic
Katy Perry’s classic song “Firework” begins with the lyric, “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind.” While her words were supposed to evoke an image of aimlessness, they point to one of the fundamental problems of plastic bags. Because they were disposable, they were often tossed aside where they could catch the wind and litter the streets of cities like a new generation of tumbleweeds.
Plastic bags are a major contributor to the worldwide plastic problem. Unlike paper, plastic is slow to break down. Some forms of plastic can take 1,000 years to decompose. While the plastic in most bags is not that bad, it still can last for a couple of decades.
Plastic does not decompose like natural fibers. Instead, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. The ocean is now teeming with these micro-pieces of plastic. Even samples of small fish yield pellets of plastic that they have swallowed. Many towns, states, and countries have felt the need to respond by reducing the amount of plastic in use.
Plastic Bag Bans
Throughout the world, people are beginning to see the wisdom in limiting plastics, especially disposable plastics. Some areas have a complete ban on plastic bags. Others try to handle the situation by putting a tax on plastic bags, hoping the extra cost will reduce use. While there is not a full ban in the United States, states like California and Hawaii have banned the bags. Many individual towns across the country have also limited the use of plastic bags.
Without access to single-use plastic bags, shoppers need to change their habits as well as find bagging alternatives.
If it is a small shopping run, a shopper can always make do with what they can carry by hand. When single-use bags were popular, checkers often bagged even a single item. Part of this was a matter of security, as it was much more likely that items in a bag had been properly purchased.
Many stores have switched from plastic to paper bags alone. Paper bags can be composted or recycled, which lowers their environmental impact. Unfortunately, they do not have the strength for reuse. To encourage shoppers to bring their own bags, many shops charge customers for using their paper bags.
Cotton Fabric Tote Bags
As the plastic bag industry declines, the tote bag industry is growing. The ubiquitous tote bags that are given at conferences, classes, and as public television gifts can now be used for groceries. Many businesses have discovered the wisdom of putting their logo on personalized tote bags. For a reasonable cost, businesses can give these bags to clients and receive free advertising every time someone uses the bag at a store.
Jute or Fiber Bags
One growing option is a jute bag made from plant fibers. These bags are fully biodegradable so that they will break down over time. When the bag comes to the end of its useful life, it can be thrown onto a compost pile.
If someone has a little sewing skill, a T-shirt that has seen better days can turn into a reusable bag. Cut off the sleeves, and there are two handholds. Sew the bottom shut, and the bag is complete.
Polypropylene Reusable Bags
These thicker plastic bags are the most controversial of the single-use bag alternatives. They are still made from plastic so come from a nonrenewable resource. They can be used several times so meet the bagging standards of some towns that have passed bans. Also, because they are thicker, these bags can usually be recycled.
The “Paper or plastic” phrase will soon be a thing of the past. Instead, shoppers will be encouraged to bring their own bags for their purchases. Enough people making a small change can make a significant change for the environment.
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