Bags and balloons, the bane of our planet

GREEN PASTURES / Try to imagine life without plastic shopping bags. How did people manage before they were so available, and so cheap?

The first step to reducing plastic bags is deciding that a c (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Reuters)
The first step to reducing plastic bags is deciding that a c
(photo credit: Illustrative photo: Reuters)
The supermarket cashier gave me the thumbsup sign of approval. “Kol hakavod,” she said, nodding at the messy collection of used plastic bags in my hand. “That’s real dedication.”
I felt smug. I was doing my little bit to save the planet. I often get funny looks for bringing out that sorry-looking bunch of used bags to package my purchases, so it was nice to be understood for once. But under that momentary glow of satisfaction, I knew how little that bit really is.
Try to imagine life without plastic shopping bags.
How did people manage before they were so available, and so cheap? How very inconvenient it would be at the supermarket, at the shuk – stuffing our tomatoes and cheese into fabric bags, wrapping our chicken in greaseproof paper. Yuck. We are addicted to disposable plastic bags, taking for granted that they should hang close to the product bins and lie in a smooth heap at the checkout line, ready at hand.
Yet we have long since reached the point at which plastic bags for any purpose should be made illegal.
They are an ailment of our sick planet, a plague that infests our oceans and the earth on which we live. Plastic bags caught in trees and bushes suffocate birds and even big land-roving animals like sheep and camels. Turtles and sea birds die struggling to free themselves from them, or having swallowed one, starve to death because it blocks their digestive tract. Plastic bags and other disposal plasticware, such as bottles, even drift into remote underground caves, blown across miles of land to stop eventually where nature puts up a barrier against the wind.
The dire consequences of plastic pollution for wildlife survival may provoke a shrug and reaction of, “Awful, but what can I do?” What we don’t see, we tend to ignore. But the disastrous results of using disposal plastic are already with us. Consider this: Plastic, according to The Plastic Pollution Coalition (, is toxic at every stage of its existence, from manufacture, through use, to recycling or ultimate slow breakdown in a landfill (or the sea), where its chemicals continue to leach out into soil and water.
“Plastic is a material that the Earth cannot digest,” the website says. “Every bit of plastic that has ever been created still exists, including the small amount that has been incinerated and has become toxic particulate matter. In the environment, plastic breaks down into small particles that attract toxic chemicals. These particles are ingested by wildlife on land and in the ocean, contaminating the food chain.”
The website points out that even while environmentalists invent ocean-sweeping machines to filter plastic trash out of the waters, the procedure may endanger the elemental base of our food chain: “There are no visible islands of trash anywhere, but rather an ocean soup laced with plastic. This makes cleaning the oceans a very difficult proposition, technically or economically.
Any cleanup has the potential to not only remove the plastics but also the plankton, which is the base of the food chain, and is responsible for capturing half of the CO2 of our atmosphere and generating half of the oxygen we need to breathe.”
AND THERE’S something else to think about. Have you considered that balloons are simply inflatable plastic bags? “What’s a kiddy party without balloons?” you might ask. The answer: It’s a party that cares for the environment and for that child’s future. Those colorful bouquets that express our joy in a birthday or are released in masses as a sort of prayer at ceremonies of grief give us an emotional rush as we watch them drift up toward the heavens. But once out of sight, they eventually deflate and fall back down to our beleaguered Earth, adding to its load of environmental troubles.
Who hasn’t arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport and cast a glance upward at the helium balloons bobbling up and down, trapped by the ceiling at Arrivals? A pity, you may think, for the child whose weak hand let a balloon go.
Yet the pity is for the waste of helium gas. Helium plays an important role in many fields, medicine and defense among them. It can’t be manufactured synthetically.
It’s a finite resource that is rapidly becoming depleted.
Although balloons account for only a small part of helium consumption, why spend it on the pleasure of a few moments, knowing that the valuable gas filling those balloons can’t be replaced? We read about chemicals in plastic baby bottles and in plastic liners of tin cans. Studies in breast cancer point to the hormone-disruptive action of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), found in many common plastic products. We are surrounded by plastic at every step of our daily lives. What can we do to reduce the harm? The Balloons Blow – Don’t Let Them Go! site ( offers sensible alternatives to balloons. One in particular resonates with the Israeli mind: Plant a tree or garden to celebrate an event or commemorate a loved one. A lovely example is Steven’s Garden in the middle of Safed’s Bar-Yohai Street ( It’s a green tribute to the memory of a beloved son, where the weary tourist can sit for a few minutes in the shade. Tree-planting isn’t only for Tu Bishvat.
An activity that children enjoy is dancing with colorful ribbons streaming around them. It makes a pretty picture and gets everyone moving. The Balloons Blow also suggests drumming, which is great for any party. My own daughter’s bat mitzva featured a musician who gathered all the guests into a drumming circle. The drums were recycled plastic paint cans. The kids banged away with gusto, but the most exhilarated rhythms came from the corner where my in-laws sat.
THE FIRST step is to decide that a certain amount of inconvenience is worthwhile. This involves refusing the plastic “nylon” that the vendor automatically slips off a pile when you buy something. Bring your own, used plastic bags from previous shopping trips and put your purchases into them. Keep a reusable fabric or synthetic bag, the kind that folds up small, in your purse or briefcase.
Clothing stores often give out great bags – save and use them again. Make sure there are always several big, strong, reusable bags in the car for shopping trips. Not being a driver, I keep some handy in the kitchen and just take them along when I go shopping. Load these bags with your purchases right there at the checkout line.
The second step is to drop self-consciousness. When you see a plastic bag or bottle underfoot, bend down, pick it up, and drop it in the nearest recycle bin. Chase a flying plastic bag down if you can. Face funny looks with aplomb. You never know. Your green example might inspire someone else.