Amid concerns over terrorism, global warming, and faltering economies, the United Nations has proclaimed a surprising new public enemy: the plastic bag. “There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere” declares UN Environmental Programme executive director Achim Steiner.
As UNEP’s Marine Litter: A Global Challenge reports, plastic garbage in ocean waters presents a hazard to marine life and as well as coastal communities. As plastic breaks down, it chokes organisms at all levels of the food chain. Meanwhile, it hampers human livelihoods such as fishing, shipping, and tourism. After all, who wants to vacation on a beach congested with garbage?
A global bag ban may be a godsend for coast-dwelling humans and animals alike. Pilot fee-per-bag programs in countries as disparate as China and Ireland have already reduced bag consumption by as much 90%. A total ban could accomplish even more. San Francisco is the first city in the US to institute a successful bag ban, although measures are in progress in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Bag advocates, such as Keith Christman of the American Chemistry Council, argue that replacing plastic bags with paper bags would actually double greenhouse gas emissions, causing even more environmental damage.
But paper bags are not the only alternative. Simply reducing the number of plastic bags per customer is a start. Any grocery shopper who’s ever bought a gallon of milk or a bottle of laundry detergent has probably seen it whisked away into a double layer of plastic bags – despite the built-in handle! “They put this laundry soap in a bag,” remarked Food Lion shopper Vicki Watts, “and the shampoo in another one. I guess they think I need [all the bags]. But I could just carry it.”
Some small businesses, such as Deep Roots Market, a natural foods cooperative in Greensboro, N.C., have taken the initiative to eliminate plastic bags on their own. Deep Roots, whose mission is “to work toward a sustainable future,” has taken what they call the “exciting and groundbreaking” step of banishing plastic bags from their checkout counters. Instead, they encourage customers to bring their own reusable tote bags, or to carry groceries home in extra cardboard boxes left over from shipments. As a last resort, a paper bag can be purchased for two cents.
As the UN publicizes the new war on plastic, environmentalists hope to see the current national rate of 90 billion bags per year decrease. Meanwhile, plastic bag manufacturers hope to increase the recycled content of their product to 40% within six years, which would save 300 million pounds of plastic per year.