And South Africa, Ireland, Taiwan, Bangladesh, San Francisco and parts of Alaska and Australia?
Should we ban free plastic shopping bags, that is? Because that’s what they do. Or in some cases, apply taxes or extra charges for them — as Ireland did, cutting plastic bag use by 90 percent. And by “we” I mean New Yorkers in particular, because if we look around us for an instant, we’d be hard pressed not to see a plastic bag on any given block. The Sierra Club even reports that, “In New York City alone, one less grocery bag per person per year would reduce waste by 109 tons and save $11,000 in disposal costs.”
Instead, the City Council passed a bill last Wednesday that requires retailers that meet a certain size to recycle plastic bags that customers drop off, keeping bins open to the public and overseeing their recycling themselves. This is an enormous step in the right direction. But I wonder what things might be like if we banned the use of nonbiodegradable plastic bags altogether. (China even banned the production of ultra-thin, virtually useless plastic bags that measure less than 0.025 millimeters thick.)
No plastic bags would mean inconveniences, not to mention icky sanitary problems encountered from reusing reusable bags and not washing them. Could we not learn to cope with these issues in due time? There would be a lot of huffing and puffing in the transition period, definitely. But that happens every time the MTA raises subway fare. There would be more baggage on consumers in the end — physically. I’d have to think ahead every time I wanted to shop after work and bring some sort of bag with me — hopefully one that was big enough for whatever I felt like purchasing. And the inconveniences go on.
But the bottom line is that statistics about plastic bag waste are scary. Instead of “encouraging” customers to recycle, shouldn’t we be treating the issue with the fright tactics that Americans are so good at anyway?
Example: “Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they’ve been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It’s equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil,” wrote Katharine Mieszkowski in Salon.com last August.
According to the new recycling bill, which goes into effect in about six months (assuming Bloomberg signs it), stores will also be required to print messages on the plastic bags they distribute “urging customers to recycle them.”
I say that these warnings should be accompanied with graphic imagery of plastic bag waste’s horrific ramifications, in the vein of Canadian cigarette packs adorned with x-rays of fetid lungs and birth defects. Maybe they could put an x-ray of a twisted clot of bags inside a seal’s stomach. Or those 12 million barrels of oil, streaming down a staircase like in that scene of The Shining. Or scary facts, like how every plastic bag we’ve ever used will exist long after we die, maybe even after our children die. Can you dig?