I like to consider myself at least marginally environmentally conscious. I try not to leave my laptop and phone plugged in indefinitely, and I have plans to pick up the new energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. The more I become aware of switching off lights when leaving a room or remembering to turn off my printer, the more aware and guiltier I feel about the useless, environmentally unfriendly cabinet full of plastic grocery bags my roommates and I have stashed in our kitchen.
The Bush Administration’s delay in accepting the facts about global warming has put America behind the pack on environmental problems and progress. While waiting for significant change on issues like carbon emissions and alternative energy, regular citizens can start adopting greener ways of life. This doesn’t mean never driving a car or becoming a vegan – I’m not quite ready to let go of cars or meat just yet either. Instead, it means being conscious of the often overlooked aspects of daily living that have a large impact on nature. This is where plastic bags enter the scene.
Every year, 500 billion to 1 trillion petroleum-based plastic bags are consumed globally. America uses 100 billion plastic bags annually and Meijer alone goes through 30 million bags per month. Aside from using up increasingly valuable natural resources like petroleum, plastic bags create large amounts of litter, harm wildlife and contribute to waste from landfills.
Specifically, plastic bags kill about 100,000 marine animals worldwide while ranking as the fifth most common item of beach debris. Plastic bags don’t biodegrade either and instead break down into smaller toxic pieces, which contaminate soil and waterways. It’s just not possible to justify these harmful environmental effects for a bag most people will only use once.
Studying in Ireland last summer showed me how life would be without plastic bags. In 2002, the Irish government introduced a consumption tax (the PlasTax) of 20 cents on plastic bags. Revealing my obviously American side, I was at first shocked and annoyed that my beloved and previously free plastic bags now came at a price. How was I possibly going to carry my food back home?
My options were to pay for the bags, pay for a reusable cloth bag sold at the register or use my backpack. As a student trying to stick to a budget, I shoved my groceries in my backpack and walked home. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, I liked walking instead of driving and not being saddled down with 14 overloaded plastic bags. I gradually became a convert to the cloth bag lifestyle. So have the Irish. Since 2002, their plastic bag use has fallen more than 90 percent, and the government has raised millions of dollars to put toward recycling programs.
Now America is trying to tackle its own plastic problems. San Francisco recently banned petroleum-based plastic bags at grocery stores and pharmacies, and Ann Arbor looks to be gearing up to be next. While some cities aren’t ready to ban plastic bags, other options like credit on reused bags, bag taxes and plastic bag recycling programs are also being discussed. In fact, Meijer will offer a “99-cent reusable nonwoven plastic bag made of recyclable polypropylene” by June. A mouthful, yes, but worth the price.
As expected, the taxes and bans have raised considerable opposition, and some people may have a hard time letting go of the time-honored tradition of leaving the grocery store with two fistfuls of plastic bags. For me though, the appeal of the plastic bag is long gone. I think I’ll start putting my Irish canvas grocery bag to use.
How appropriate that I learned to go green on the Emerald Isle.
Rachel Wagner is an LSA junior and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.