Should we do as China?

posted in: Ruminations | 26

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 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?

26 Responses

  1. Yvo

    I’m all over this. I think it’s really gross with the plastic bags- even though I reuse whatever bags come my way (I have a dog, so they get used for poop-duty, though I believe that then gets tossed in a big dump somewhere and not recycled or anything, unfortunately). I’ve taken to using the Go Orange bag I bought at the Grand Central Market tasting (which I’m actually helping them get rid of, btw, if anyone wants! I keep meaning to post on my blog…) or other cloth bags. Last week I went to Trader Joe’s in Queens and forgot to bring a bag with me, but I only bought one thing, so I told the guy “I don’t need a bag, thanks” but either he didn’t hear me or didn’t believe me, so he put away the paper bag he had opened up and took out *two* plastic bags! I was like, no, really, I don’t need two plastic bags to put this one little tiny pack of meat in… I’m okay, really. Sigh.

  2. bryan

    yes!! if it isn’t inconvenient to use plastic bags, people will just continue to take their double bagged bag of fruit, or what have you. i always try to take a cloth bag to the grocery. and for times when i can’t carry a cloth bag, i keep a plastic bag in my messenger bag just in case.

  3. Laura Wehrman

    Get yourselves some Baggu bags at They are very cute and come in a small pouch so you can slip one in your purse, messenger bag, whatever and it will always be there for that unexpected trip to the store. Plus, the company was started by a mother and daughter. I keep one in my bag always.

  4. Thew

    Has everybody heard about the enormous islands of plastic in the Pacific? Plastic bags are particularly destructive in the water because sea turtles mistake them for their favorite food, jellyfish. And little kids’ birthday balloons? Death to birds.

    I find it hard to always be on, to keep saying, “I don’t need a plastic bay, thanks,” at the check-out counter. They drop your purchases so quickly into plastic.

    Food wise, I shop with a canvas bag and my backpack.

  5. joanne

    I have been trying to recycle those plastic bags. I did get a huge insulated cooler bag, to carry my groceries in. Also the environmental club at my son’s school sold reusable poly-cotton bags that hold the amount of two large paper bags. I take them everywhere with me. Trying to make a habit of immediately handing the bags to the cashier, so they don’t pull out the dreaded plastic bags. So far, I’m getting dumb looks still.

  6. Jennifer

    I think a charge or a tax on each plastic bag used (to both the consumer AND the store) would be a good way to go.

    As far as reusable bags, I have a set of 10 bags that are shaped like traditional brown paper sacks, but have huge handles that run down and under the bags for support. I can fit SO much more in each bag, and they are WAY more comfortable to use. I blush, but I remember to use them MORE because I LIKE them better (not because they are better for the environment- though I care about that, too). Maybe everyone just needs introduced to them!

  7. david

    It’s hard to believe that in NYC, there’s almost no grocery stores that offer plastic bag recycling. I lived in the cultural wasteland of Florida for a little while a few years back and all the grocery stores had bins when you walked in to recycle the plastic bags. The only store that does that here that i know of is Whole foods. I try and bring a cloth bag with me whenever i go to the store or just carry my purchases by hand but the grocery people love to triple bag everything and look at you like your crazy when you tell them you don’t want a bag. Something needs to change. There’s too much waste in our consumer society.

  8. Krista

    I find it embarassing that we (Canada) haven’t implemented this legislation. There is absolutely no reason not to. We do have one grocery chain that doesn’t offer plastic bags to its customers, but does sell them for something like 10 cents a bag. There is no reason why this can’t be legislated, with the proceeds going to, say, public transit or something like that.
    As far as an inconvenience, in my opinion, it’s really not a big deal to bring some bags with you when you’re doing a major grocery. It’s the picking stuff up on the way home that’s a problem. But I just picked up this magical little lightweight bag that rolls up into nothing, weighs nothing, and into which I have been stuffing on the way groceries for six months.
    In fact, I’ve gotten so good at not using plastic bags that it’s created a problem for me here in Toronto, where we have a city-wide composting program. The grocery store sized plastic bags are the perfect size for compostables, but I keep running out!

  9. Hannah Mae

    I live in San Francisco, and while I fully support the plastic bag ban, it doesn’t seem to have changed people’s behavior much, at least not at my local supermarket – same amount of bags, just now they’re paper. Which is more easily recyclable and it doesn’t strangle sea life, but has big problems of its own. And SF is fortunate to have many many smaller stores, which aren’t (yet) affected by the ban – about half my grocery shopping by volume is at shops which still legally use plastic.

    Not that I would discourage anybody from implementing a bag ban – if nothing else, it’s certainly made many people conscious of their bag usage who weren’t before. It’s a start.

  10. al

    interesting. I was in Korea for a couple months this Fall and they also do not use plastic bags. Most people bring their own bags or you have to pay to buy one at the store.
    It was also interesting because when you go to a coffee shop, you pay an extra 50 cents for the cup and then after you finish, you return the cup and they give you your money back. They re-use them. Obviously they clean them before.

    It just made me realize how wasteful we are in America.

  11. Leticia

    Just remember that China CAN do this because it remains a totalitarian country. If the USAs aspirations are on this line – becoming a totalitarian country, please do so.

  12. cathy

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets stared at like a space creature when I say I don’t need a bag!

    Letitia: Good point, and I totally didn’t mean that the US should aspire to totalitarianism. However, it’s interesting that China adopted this ban because they are seen as having extremely poor environmental policies. So it’s a surprising, positive move. Also, many other countries instill these and similar laws that aren’t totalitarian, like those mentioned in the beginning of the post.

    Those Baggubags are super cute, by the way, Laura. Thanks!

  13. Kittie

    I totally agree – I try to use plastic bags as little as possible, and always recycle those that I do end up with.

    I was in Budapest last year, where every supermarket charged for bags (I don’t think it was a legislative thing, just common practice) It wasn’t much – but enough to make people think about it. I really noticed the difference. Hardly any of the locals used them, and we tried to mimimise our use when we were there – putting things in handbags when possible, or just carrying some items outside of bags. By the end of the week, we carried our own bags with us to reuse.

    I have linked to this post from here:

    Love the Baggubags, Laura – and pleased they deliver to the UK!!

  14. Katie

    I definitely agree that we need a better way to bring home our groceries. Reusable canvas bags are cheap and pretty, not to mention stronger than disposable plastic bags.

    My only concern – We save every, single plastic bag we bring home to use to clean out our cat’s litterbox. Without them, we’d have a hard time transporting litterbox waste to the dumpster outside. I imagine the same goes for people who take their dog out for a walk with plastic bags to clean up after them.

    Has anyone found an environmentally friendly way to clean their cat litterboxes?

  15. helen

    I stopped accepting plastic bags with my purchases over the summer. Once saying no—and stopping cashiers in their checkout-to-bag tracks—becomes a habit, it stops feeling awkward. (I usually do my own bagging, though.)

    For spur-of-the-moment purchases, I use whatever bag/purse I am carrying, or I just carry things by hand, or some combination of the two. Also, sometimes a clean, empty plastic bag is lying usefully somewhere nearby… Some stores, like Whole Foods, have a leave-one/take-one receptacle. Anyway, walking or subwaying home with a few groceries or what-have-you in my arms doesn’t feel like a big deal.

    My roommate still accepts plastic bags with her purchases, so our supply isn’t running low. We use them instead of store-bought plastic bags for all of our garbage and composting. Still, we could be doing better: there are biodegradable bagging options out there, like bags made from corn. We could use those for trash, compost, kitty litter, poop duty…

    Here’s one example:

  16. chisai

    I think the plastic bag situation is out of control, but for many people, it simply comes down to convenience and the bags the grocer gives you are convenient. I hate those canvas bags. They’re bulky and since they don’t fold up all tiny and nice. So you have to remember, specially to take them with you. A few months ago, had a thing on baggu bags, which are awesome. They’re great looking, in a variety of solid colors, strong, hold about 2x what a standard supermarket bag olds, and you can carry them in your back pocket. Now, I always have one or two tucked in my purse and keep another one at the office.

    Sam Ash (though I’m sure many others) carry these little nylon bags and case that fold up so TINY. They’re made to attach to your key chain. They are ridiculously tiny. Not as big as baggu, but great for when you pick up milk and Stouffer’s on the way home from the office. I gave a bunch of them as part of my Christmas gift to friends this year. And I think they actually use them (at least that’s what they tell me).

    So, one small step for the environment, I hope.

  17. cathy

    Katie: Good point about the pet poo. My friends with pets all use plastic bags for dog and cat litter or newspaper for small pets’ cages. With these, you’re at least recycling things meant for an earlier purpose. But it kind of falls in to the same territory as disposable diapers — what to do? I’d also love to hear about more alternatives for these issues.

  18. Kaye

    Nice post. Here in Ireland, where you pay for a bag, we still seem to be over run with them. I wish that the government had gone one step further and put a ban on plastic bags.

    As for taking a bag with you just in case you want to stop off after work, its something that you get used to really quickly. So much so, that if you get a few fabric or string bags, you can keep one in your bag, a couple at work and a few at home. Really it’s no big deal.

    After you get used to using cloth or string bags you will start refusing bags as much as you can. And then when you get an accumulation of plastic bags in your house you wonder where they came from!

  19. Courtney

    In response to what Leticia stated, Ireland isn’t totalitarian, and they had very little issue passing the initial legislation. Granted, they’re a smaller country, but whether or not a nation is a democracy doesn’t always affect the legislation that has been passed.

    With that said, I’m currently living in Dublin, and it’s been surprisingly easy to adapt to living without plastic bags. Sure, there’s the initial shock of going to a grocery store and being charged for bags, but you learn quickly. From what I’ve seen, no one misses the bags either. When they pop up (and they do), most seem somewhat surprised to see them again.

    If anything, I think the biggest adjustment would be that of switching the American mindset from buying in bulk to buying what you can feasibly hold.

  20. Judith

    I think it’s a good plan. I’m American, and I lived in Ireland (Cork) for a while. I’ve always thought “oh, yeah, I should use reusable bags” but never bothered. Then I started having to pay, and quickly changed my tune! But when I came back, I went back to abusing the free-bag system. Now I use my backpack a lot more, though. I think if we were to do it, we should do like Ireland and have some bags that cost a little more that are thicker plastic, large, and reuseable. Then you can get bags if you forget them when you arrive at the store, but you can use them again next time. It’s also good if all your groceries don’t *fit* in your backpack!

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