The debate over paper vs. plastic has raged on for a generation. Once scorned as they were introduced into supermarket and drugstore chains in the late 1980s, plastic bags have become the standard. Many stores do not even offer paper bags; most do not ask, hoping you will accept the cheaper plastic alternative.
But anyone walking down a street and watching plastic bags floating in the air like giant dandelion tufts has seen enough. Environmental and aesthetic concerns have resulted in a backlash against such bags. San Francisco was the first large city to ban plastic bags from many stores a few years ago, earning it praise and mockery at the same time. But now California Assembly Bill 1998 could ban them statewide, and other states and municipalities are considering similar laws. The debate rages on: should they just be banned, or should stores charge for them, giving consumers an economic argument to give them up?
Companies are buying into the idea: Ikea has long charged for plastic bags, Wal-Mart has done a test run of eliminating plastic bags at a handful of California stores, and Trader Joe’s tries to bribe customers into bringing their own bags by offering weekly drawings for gift certificates. Over 500 stores have signed on to AB1998, citing the costs of providing plastic bags, not to mention the ugly side effects including ending up in the ocean. Other stores’ efforts, including crediting customers a nickel or so for each reusable bag brought to a store, have made little headway.
When I lived in Korea, I could not figure out why everyone walked to work at 7:00 a.m. with a fancy Baskin Robbins bag, thinking it was far too early for frozen dairy products at such an hour. I eventually realized that locals were carrying the bags because they looked nice—no one of any respectable stature would go in a public carrying a cheap supermarket plastic bag. So why not go a step further and eliminate them? Some out there, however, suggest repurposing them–some logical, others questionable.
Walgreen’s (am I the only one that walks in there with a rumpled canvas bag?) offers some suggestions to its consumers for dealing with those pesky plastic bags. The suggestions almost appear to come from iconic Engrish.com: shoe protectors, always needed for those southern California floods, are an option. You can also use a plastic bag as a dirty diaper holder, though I assume after a diaper is used, you want to dispose it, not hold it. For gardeners, the plastic bag can also be transformed into a plant protector, though I had thought that like small children, plants would eventually suffocate if left in such conditions too long. Rubber gloves are another alternative, though I hope my health care and dental practitioners do not get the idea anytime soon.
Target’s plastic bags also offered some interesting suggestions, some of which defy physics, such as a water balloon substitute. Roadtrip Rubbish is not a UK reality show, but another alternative, while Tomorrow’s Lunchbag is an idea since today’s lunch is probably in a paper bag. While I love one-liners, a plastic bag does not offer such a function, but Kitty Little Liner use is a decent suggestion, provided it does not double as Tomorrow’s Lunchbag.
All right, enough silliness at these stores’ expense. The American Chemistry Council may fight a plastic ban tooth and nail (or keep those in a plastic bag) playing the bacteria card, but a shift in attitudes is occurring. So forget the paper-plastic-or-neither debate. Assuming plastic bags get blacklisted, what is the preferred option: banning them outright, or charging consumers, say, a quarter for each bag, giving them an economic incentive to use reusable bags? Either way, I would love to completely ditch them: judging by all the trade show, conference, and TJ’s bags in my car trunk, reusable bags can be habit forming in a good way—while liberating us from all that trash at the same time. What do you think?