…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
De-Plasticize Me: I’m Going Plastic Bagless
Categories: Blog, Greening Me

by Meg White

You’d be hard-pressed to find two words more closely associated with America than “disposable” and “plastic.” Does it follow then, that banning single-use plastic bags is un-American?

If so, you’ll have to add “treason” to my list of transgressions this month: I’m going without.

plastic bag landfillMore on that in a bit. First, let’s take in the latest news regarding a ban on disposable plastic bags. The head of the United Nations environmental program made waves earlier this month when he suggested a global ban on throw-away plastic bags. From McClatchy:

“Single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme.

His remarks accompanied a UNEP report on the global challenge of marine pollution identified plastic as the most pervasive litter in the world’s oceans.

As I mulled over the virtual uproar over banning plastic bags worldwide, my stomach growled. I went to the fridge and grabbed my lunch, which was wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. Opening up the bag, my sandwich posed another layer of plastic to navigate, this one brought to you by your friends at Ziploc.

Am I part of the problem? I asked myself. Should I try out a ban on myself?

The phrase “ban on plastic bags,” however, is misleading. Media reports that breathlessly gush about a citywide or countrywide “ban” are usually referring to a tax on single-use plastic bags, as is the case in Ireland. The country was the first to institute what it called the “plastax” — a surcharge on each plastic bag that now amounts to the equivalent of about 33 American cents — in 2002.

It may not be a ban, but it tends to have the same effect. The New York Times reported last year that in Ireland “plastic bags became socially unacceptable — on par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after your dog.”

Though, in the hometown of The Gray Lady, you’re more likely to face a fine for ignoring Fido’s output than Filene’s. Earlier this month New York City ditched a proposal to add a five-cent tax to plastic bags.

The idea is catching on elsewhere, however. African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have restricted and/or taxed the use of plastic bags. San Francisco banned plastic bags from large grocery stores and pharmacies in favor of recyclable paper or compostable bags in 2007. From Philadelphia and Seattle to China and Australia, everyone seems to be getting in on the act. Even Los Angeles, the city where nothing is more natural than plastic, will ban the bags by 2010.

My fair city hasn’t quite gotten the memo yet. Despite attempts to institute a plastic bag ban in Illinois and Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley’s vision of the greenest city in the world remains his own personal delusion (although, the Chicago City Council was able to ban the tiny plastic bags used by drug dealers last year, which clearly impressed me).

But I can rail against Chicago’s greenwashing program only so long before finding ways in which I can be more environmentally friendly without municipal aid. Feeling that a citywide ban on single-use plastic bags is far from reach, not to mention a worldwide one, I thought I’d try it out myself.

Unsure about my ability to live without plastic, and aware of the efficacy of wide-open scrutiny, I thought I’d try it Super Size Me style: For the next month, I’m going without disposable plastic bags.

I was inspired by a number of things. Writing about the giant floating “islands” of garbage, mostly plastic, was one such inspiration. And the idea of 100,000 marine animals dying each year because I left my tote at home is troubling, if a little overly dramatic. If you’re still feeling cynical, try staring at the ever-whirling tally of the number of plastic bags that have been consumed this year — around a half million every minute — at the top of this Web site.

Now, this is not going to be easy for me. I don’t have a vehicle, so stowing a reusable tote in my trunk is not an option. I’m also too squeamish to wash out Ziploc-style bags to turn them into something re-usable. Can I survive a month without Ziploc?

The single-use plastic bag is about as old as I am, having been introduced 25 to 30 years ago in this country, depending upon whom you ask. For those of us who don’t remember a time before the option of “paper or plastic,” the task may be more daunting. But I figure if I can keep in mind that such a time did exist, and humanity made it pretty far without plastic bags, the task will be measurably easier.

In order to track my progress, I’m going to use the following self-tax system: I will charge myself (to be deposited in a glass change jar for each infraction) 10 cents every time I throw away plastic that is not commonly banned, such as the aforementioned Ziploc, plastic wrap or garbage liners. And I will charge myself the symbolic 33 cents the Irish pay if I catch myself using one of those naughty single-use bags, even if it is a second or third use. I’ll be dropping off my massive collection of single-use plastic bags this Saturday at my local co-op, which does not buy bags but relies on neighbors such as myself to drop their bags off to be re-used by customers.

And as a part of BuzzFlash’s effort to show that action on the Internet is more than just signing petitions, I encourage you to take up this challenge along with me. Go for the next month without plastic bags.

I’ll report back to the BuzzFlash community every week to let you guys know how it’s coming. I urge you to play along at home, as they say. Keep score with me, and maybe we’ll save up enough in self-inflicted taxes to donate to a worthy environmental cause (suggestions welcome). But I’m hoping my change jar will be relatively empty a month from now.

So stay tuned for my bag-less updates. And in the meantime, join in the discussion by commenting below.


Image courtesy of Samuel Mann’s photostream on Flickr.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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