Paper or Plastic? Neither!

After years of wrangling, and nearly passing a surcharge on plastic bags a few years ago, San Francisco has just set a big precedent. This from

The city’s Board of Supervisors approved groundbreaking legislation Tuesday to outlaw plastic checkout bags at large supermarkets in about six months and large chain pharmacies in about a year.

(Here’s the story.)

Here’s a bit of backstory: First, unless you’re brain damaged, you probably know that plastic bags are a complete blight on the earth. Plastic bags decompose about as slowly as nuclear waste, account for 7 percent of landfill weight and 18 percent of volume–and that’s when they make it to a landfill. Often they find their way into the watershed, where they get ground up into little bits and ingested by fish or suffocate fish or marine mammals.

(For more info on the faux choice of paper vs. plastic, see the bit about bags by the Georgia Conservancy.)

North America is moving at about the speed of a receding glacier away from “paper or plastic.” For example, Ikea announced two weeks ago that it would charge a nickel a bag. A UPI story noted that Ikea “wanted to bring a bit of European sensibility to U.S. shopping.” That’s putting it lightly. When I hear “U.S. shopping,” I picture obese Neanderthals dragging billowing plastic sacks behind them at super-stores …

A few years ago when I first started to switch to canvas bags, I had a variety of strange reactions from clerks. Many of them were baffled; I once had a surly teenager huff in disgust. Others made a big deal about doing double-entry bookkeeping when I was shopping, carefully counting my bags so that I got the correct number of bags times .03 credit. (You’ll be happy to know I invested that nine cents in a progressive mutual fund, and it’s now worth .134!)

San Francisco has been pondering alternatives to plastic since at least 2004, when they proposed a 17-cent surcharge on them in the city, prompting one of the lamest rationalizations ever attempted by a PR lackey. In fact, it’s so lame it’s worth dredging out of the archive and quoting verbatim: “We think essentially it’s an unnecessary and misguided approach,” said Tim Shestek, spokesman for the American Plastics Council. “This tax is going to hurt those who can least afford it.”

Tim, if you’re reading this, you’re pond scum–no, worse, you’re a plastic bag that’s going to take 10,000 years to fall apart, probably offing a few critters in your eternal half-life. (More evidence of Tim-the-Evil)

Admittedly, PR lackeys are paid to be amoral mouthpieces, but come on. Since when has the American Plastics Council ever donated a single plasti-widget to help “those who can least afford it?” Because if they did, the solution would be screechingly simple.

Here’s Tim Shestek in a perfect world: “We at the American Plastics Council think plastic is a wonderful technology, if correctly used. Clearly, churning out millions of bags that last for millennia and harm all sorts of living creatures isn’t one of those uses. We are concerned that this tax would hurt those who can least afford it–which is why we’re giving away bags made out of recycled plastic.”

I live in the Portland area, which is potty for sustainability, so it should come as no surprise that my dowdy, mismatched bags are often–well not exactly embraced (as the do suffer from occasional pre-laundry grottiness), but almost never looked upon as goofy. True, I do get the occasional Rite-Aid clerk who is still flummoxed when I tell her I don’t want my single pack of gum in its own plastic bag, but for the most part they’re accepted.

Two stories of the recent past: At the the local hoity-toity mart, I brought my bags late one night on the way home from somewhere, and the clerk saw them and seemed somewhat puzzled that her chain (Haggen … are you listening?) didn’t sell them near the checkout, if at all.

And a few weeks ago I was at the local blue-collar Safeway, and I handed my bags to the woman working the checkout. She paused slightly and examined my bags.

Here it comes, I thought, another tiresome opportunity for yours truly to spend his fatigued post-work hours having evangelize for basic common sense.

“This is a Trader Joe’s bag,” she said. “They’re our competitor.”

I shrugged and said something noncommittal, but I was pleasantly surprised I didn’t have to defend my lifestyle when all I wanted to do was buy bread and eggs.

She rung me out and closed her checkout lane, and then told me to wait. When she returned, she had a black Safeway bag, which she gave to me. For free. “Here,” she said. “If you’re going to use them, use one of ours.”

I said thanks and took the bag home with me.

It’s made out of recycled plastic.


2 thoughts on “Paper or Plastic? Neither!

  1. Pingback: Quotes from the Plastic Industry - « First Person Irregular

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