The Great Plastic Bag Debate

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Almost everytime someone walks out of the grocery story, they leave with a disposable bag handed to them by the cashier. Perhaps it’s a paper bag, perhaps it’s a plastic bag.

Either way, it creates another source of waste, and thus another justification for the government to pick up a nickle from the taxpayer. New York City is considering instiuting a bag tax. San Francisco and L.A. banned the bags altogether. Ireland put in a tax which cut bag usage by 90%.

Yet for all the hubbub about reducing bag use, it’s still not a slam dunk that we should get rid of plastic bags.

The Economist runs down why it’s environmentally sound to cut back on bags:

  • In places like India and Bangladesh, they have a nasty habit of clogging drains; during monsoon season the resulting floods can cause huge damage and even the occasional death.
  • Plastic bags are also a menace to animals. Many become snagged in them, or eat them—potentially fatal mistakes.
  • Bags that wind up at sea can absorb toxic chemicals, making them even more harmful to the wildlife around them.
  • They never really biodegrade: they simply break into ever smaller pieces.

Why not cut back on plastic bags? If people start using paper bags in their stead, the environmental damage is worse. Plastic bags require less energy to manufacture and transport than paper.

The newspaper then goes on to half heartedly argue that reducing the amount of grocery bags in use can lead to a mental greenwashing. If a person uses fewer plastic bags, then she thinks she is helping the environment, when in reality all she is doing is…using fewer bags.

That is to say, she would be doing the least she can do, pretty much literally.

This is a silly argument, if someone is cutting back on waste, then that’s a good thing. If The Economist wants to be subversive, it should provide an analysis of all the energy put into producing canvas tote bags to replace the plastic bags we currently use for our groceries. Or provide an analysis of how many people re-use their grocery bags for trash bags and compute what the trade off in purchasing large trash bags would be.

Then we might finally be able to settle the great plastic bag debate.

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