Environmental essay re plastic grocery bags for Beyond The Water's Edge, 8/11 [812 words].
It would appear that the environmentalists can claim another victory in their war to get the consuming public to consume a little less. The grocery store down the street just adopted a "green initiative" and is now charging ten cents per plastic bag. As an incentive to avoid the fee, you're encouraged to bring your own reusable bags from home. Ten cents per bag does seem a bit steep, but I'm in favor of conserving resources and protecting the environment, so let's examine some of the issues surrounding this initiative.
To start, they aren't the first store to implement such a policy. They're merely the latest, and it isn't just stores and fees, either. Ireland instituted a special tax on plastic grocery bags in 2003. You don't live in Ireland, so you don't care, you say? Then consider the following. San Francisco went so far as to ban their use in 2007, becoming the first city in North America to do so. New York and New Jersey, among other states, require stores that offer plastic bags to have recycling programs. These locales are serious about their recycling, too. When I lived in northern New York, you could only buy clear plastic garbage bags, so everyone could tell if you were mixing trash with recyclables (or, just as bad, different classes of recyclables). As a few of our neighbors discovered, none of it gets picked up, until it's properly sorted.
One thing that will irritate customers is the fact that, if they want to avoid the fee, it will require action on their part--a change of habit--and change can be difficult. People get accustomed to things being a certain way and don't always react well or quickly, when they change. I'm certain there will be many customers who will make several trips to the store and get "surprised" by the fee, until they gradually either adapt their behavior to include bringing along reusable bags, or simply resign themselves to the elevated final bill. Not a few, though, will actively and stubbornly refuse to change, until they see no other option. Until then, they will complain about the policy on every visit, forcing a checker who can't change it, as well as everyone else within earshot, to suffer through yet another tirade.
Why did they even establish the policy? An easy answer is cost. It costs the store money to buy the bags, but that cost is passed on to the consumer. However, since the bags have to be stored somewhere, there's also a calculable cost to the store, because the grocer must use valuable space to store something he can't sell. In this respect, the ten cent fee does double duty. It helps defray the storage expense, while nudging the consumer towards not using them at all.
Of course, there is also the environmental cost. According to one report, making 1,500 plastic bags from natural gas, the most common feedstock, consumes almost 33 pounds of fossil fuel and 58 gallons of fresh water. It also produces about 15 pounds of solid waste and 0.04 tons of carbon dioxide. And that's just to make them. Since less than 10 percent of plastic bags in the United States are recycled, the other 90 percent end up in the oceans or in landfills where, since they're not biodegradable, they'll reside almost forever. Recycling is one answer--according to the EPA, the equivalent of nine barrels of oil is saved when we recycle one ton of plastic bags--but not using them at all is a better one.
The truth be told, plastic bags don't always do the job for which they were made. Under the weight of your groceries, the handles are subject to tearing or the bottom to giving way. Even the most cheaply made cloth bags do a better job and, if necessary, are easily repaired. The military commissary we patronize sells reusable cloth bags, but also offers shoppers a choice between paper and plastic, and doesn't assess a fee for choosing one over the other. You're also permitted to bring your plastic bags back on subsequent trips, along with or instead of the cloth bags, although there is no credit or rebate associated with any of the choices. A grocery store we occasionally use sells store-branded cloth bags and, until recently, offered a five cent per bag credit for each one you brought in to use for your shopping. I must admit that I remembered to bring along one of their bags much more often, when the rebate program was in effect.
The bottom line? I'm going to support the new initiative by purchasing a few more cloth bags, and I'll try to remember to keep one in the car to cover spur of the moment trips. I'll probably forget from time to time, though, leading to an unpleasant little surprise at the register. To quote a certain frog: "It's not easy being green."