HAVE ISSUES ABOUT PLASTIC BAGS
June 6, 2010
questions are in response to a column I wrote supporting a District of
Columbia law requiring businesses to charge customers five cents for each
disposable plastic bag they take.
Q: I have
questions about your article on the environmental problems resulting from
the use and disposal of plastic bags. Even if we all carry bags to the
grocery store instead of getting items packed in plastic and paper, we
still have the perplexing issue of how to dispose of everyday garbage
that is carried out to the trash can. Much of it is not recyclable, and
some of it includes foodstuffs or other items that have to be contained
in something. And of course, what about the excessive packaging on most
products, all of which is plastic?
Q: Even if
I reuse a plastic bag by taking it to the store, I bring home more stuff,
much of it plastic, that eventually goes to the landfill. We recycle because
we live in an area where recycling centers are handy. But many people,
maybe most, do not. How can they do what is right environmentally?
issue" certainly sums up the frustration most people feel about overconsumption
and overpackaging if they have any sense of environmental responsibility.
The five cents per bag user fee does not solve the greater problem of
our consumptive society or the fact that such bags themselves have many
practical uses that warrant their production. However, the first step
in solving societal problems, as in solving personal ones, is admitting
that a problem exists. Charging for each plastic bag, even if only a nickel,
acknowledges that there is a problem.
to what to use to carry out trash--use a plastic bag. Presumably it will
go to a landfill or recycling center and will not become litter. One reason
for the D.C. law was to help clean up the Anacostia River, which was littered
with plastic bags. Any bag that is properly disposed of, regardless of
whether it is reused, is not part of that problem.
issue is the problem of overpurchasing. The first step toward a solution
is to buy only what you will consume. Disposal is not a problem for people
who are, whether by necessity or choice, frugal in making their purchases
and therefore have very little "everyday trash" to discard.
But most people, at least in the United States, are not inclined to frugality.
We purchase what we want, not merely what we need.
of the commons" is a concept that was addressed by Garrett Hardin
in 1968. It highlights situations in which the individual is rewarded
for overconsumption whereas the group is penalized when a resource is
not sustainable or is itself broadly detrimental. In the case of plastic
bags and other plastic products, it would be in society's best interest
if everyone were conservative in their use, recycled whenever possible,
and reused items as long as possible. It takes less effort, however, to
have your purchases packed in the plastic bags provided by the store than
it does to bring bags from home--and then remember to actually take them
into the store. This is human nature, and few simple solutions are forthcoming.
As for overpackaging,
a program initiated by Amazon holds out some hope on this front. In 2008
Amazon launched its "frustration-free packaging initiative."
Among other things, the initiative eliminates those maddening packages
that encase the product in a plastic clamshell and guarantee a burst of
language that cannot be printed in a family newspaper. The Amazon initiative
should not only save companies money but also help the environment by
reducing waste and conserving energy. A win-win situation.
that make plastic bags or the plastic used in packaging are unlikely to
sit idly by while changes such as those implemented by the District of
Columbia and Amazon become the norm. On the other hand, consumer demand
can be a powerful force. And by decreasing overpackaging and overconsumption
we will substantially improve the earth on which we live.
you have an environmental question or comment, email