The end of plastic bags?

Why must a relatively light article like a dress or skirt or pair of shoes leave the store in a thick, shiny plastic bag?

Shop Window by Isaac Israels 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shop Window by Isaac Israels 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When I bought eight glass dinner plates recently I watched the store assistant stack them and wind a thin blue plastic film tightly over the whole lot, wrapping it around and around many, many times. True, the dishes wouldn’t be able to separate from each other and break – but how many meters of that plastic stuff had he used up on my one purchase? He didn’t seem to care.
And there was a whole line of people behind me with items awaiting similar treatment.
I’ve noticed the same clingy blue wrap used by movers to protect furniture, and hate to think about what happens to all that plastic once it has served its (usually single) purpose.
It’s hard these days to avoid hearing about all the pollution damage we careless humans are doing to our world and the dangers to marine life and the countryside that loom because of it, and so most of us have developed some sort of environmental conscience.
Yet old habits die hard. Very hard, sometimes.
I’ve been keeping two sturdy cloth shopping bags in the trunk of my car for at least two years to minimize our use of plastic shopping bags – and I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve remembered to take them out and schlep them with me into the supermarket.
It isn’t that I don’t care; I do. When I see the abandon with which many customers – and the supermarket staff who help them bag their purchases – tear off those storesupplied plastic bags, I feel depressed. Multiply those bags by the millions daily in stores all over the country and you get a gargantuan amount of manmade material which, experts say, will take up to 1,000 years to break down.
Renowned Canadian academic and environmental activist David Suzuki calls plastic bags “bad, and for the most part unnecessary,” adding that they are “neither efficient nor environmentally friendly.” While he doubts that outright bans are the best solution, he advocates education and incentives to get people to stop using these bags.
I’d like to stop, believe me, but we also have a constant, multicolored collection of smaller plastic bags, mostly from the Mahaneh Yehudah market, where my husband likes to shop for fruits and vegetables.
These (and the supermarket ones) I reuse as garbage bags in the kitchen, which grants me a measure of absolution, but not nearly enough when I remember the larger, more “prestigious” plastic bags used by a variety of clothing and other stores that I – like most people, I’m sure – have stored at the back of my wardrobe.
Why must a relatively light article like a dress or skirt or pair of shoes leave the store in a thick, shiny plastic bag? If it’s to advertise the name of the retailer, it’s an increasingly high price to pay.
I have taken to refusing plastic bags whenever possible. And in order to feel a tiny bit better about what I personally am doing for the environment, I periodically open a kitchen drawer and contemplate my multipurpose biodegradable plastic sandwich bags.
Then there are the two containers we keep in our yard, one for paper, the other for plastic bottles and packaging. I took the last lot out to the public recycling bins a couple of days ago and might have felt mildly virtuous but for the view of Michael Maniates, a professor of environmental science at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, who said that while recycling is a wonderful thing to do if we’re comparing it to throwing stuff away, it has become a reward for consumption.
In other words, recycling just gives many of us a license to go out and buy more.
ON HOLIDAY in England in 2012, we were impressed – even while inconvenienced – by the policy of the supermarket nearest to where we were staying, part of the Lidl chain, to provide no free bags whatsoever. Customers were taking this in their stride, carrying their own shopping bags. I was the only one, who, taken unawares, was reduced to surreptitiously pulling a bit of packaging out from under the vegetables to hold my purchases together.
According to media reports regarding proposals to meet new European “green” targets, countries across the continent could soon be banning throwaway plastic bags altogether, or imposing charges on disposable carrier bags in a bid to reduce their use by 80 percent. Currently, every EU citizen uses an average of 200 bags annually.
In March 2002, the Irish Republic became the first country to introduce a plastic bag fee, or PlasTax. Designed to rein in the country’s rampant consumption of 1.2 billion plastic shopping bags per year, the tax resulted in a 90% drop in consumption.
And in 2007, the British town of Modbury in Devon claimed to be the first in Europe to be entirely free of plastic bags, with all 43 shopkeepers on board.
THE AVERAGE Israeli uses 275 plastic bags per year, a quarter of which are thrown away immediately after use.
But this country too is now trying for a shift away from its use-and-toss culture toward a practice of reusable bags, each of which has the potential to eliminate hundreds, even thousands, of plastic ones.
As reported by The Jerusalem Post’s Sharon Udasin, MK Michal Rozin of Meretz submitted a bill to the Knesset this week advocating a gradual prohibition of plastic bags in stores; after which the Environmental Protection Ministry – on the same day – announced the completion of work on its own plastic bag ban, beginning with a public information campaign.
The ministry’s plan has retailers, who spend about NIS 80 million annually on plastic bags, funding the distribution of reusable shopping baskets among customers for a limited time period, after which there would be a total ban on providing plastic bags.
Rozin’s bill, drafted by the Zalul environmental NGO and the Council for a Beautiful Israel and supported by MKs across the political spectrum, aims, after an initial transition year, to replace the bags with either biodegradable bags or reusable baskets, for a small fee.
All good. But our legislators – and implementers – should take a salutary lesson from Britain and aim for maximum clarity and simplicity in orchestrating this challenging lifestyle change: The BBC reported last week that a crossparty committee of MPs had described the government’s plans for a 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in England as “a complete mess,” calling the current proposals “unnecessarily complicated.”
DO YOU know what garbology is? Neither did I until Wikipedia gave the answer. Turns out it is the study of modern refuse and trash, pioneered as an academic discipline in 1973 at the University of Arizona. Its longtime director William Rathje found that Americans were wrong about what they thought they threw away most. When combined, the three most infamous types of trash – diapers, fast food containers and Styrofoam – amounted to less than three percent of landfill. In contrast, plastic refuse accounted for 20-24% percent of waste.
Environmentalists say enough plastic bottles are thrown away each year in the United States to circle the earth four times.
WHEN WE moved house recently, we acquired a number of new appliances and pieces of electronic equipment, which involved a considerable amount of packaging. Some we had to ditch, but I saved all the extra-large plastic bags and found them ideal for keeping bedding and other large items dust-free in the storage compartment under our guest room bed.
Thinking back to the Israel of the early 1970s when I made aliya and realizing how much in our culture has changed for the better since then, I wonder about Israeli life in the next decade or two, and whether all the good intentions regarding plastic bags will bear fruit.
Perhaps individually, like the good people of Modbury town, we can help to make it happen.