Monday, May 6, 2019

Reusable Shopping Bags

A few years ago, the trend toward reusable shopping bags took off.   Lately, the trend seems to have stalled.   Were we sold a bill of goods here?

Being environmentally conscious is a marketing tool that people use today to get folks to spend money.  It's true - you can get people to pay more for an item if you can convince them it is eco-friendly.

And perhaps this is why folks were lining up to buy the Toyota Prius (now on sale for 10 years) as it was perceived as the "green" car.  The Chevy Volt, on the other hand is perceived more as a calculated stunt to qualify for bailout money.  And besides, true greenies aren't going to buy an electric car from the company that killed the electric car, right?

And as I noted before, buying a Prius sends the message that you care about the environment.   Buying a Toyota Paseo or Chevy Aveo just says you're poor.

Selling "green" is all about selling perception, and if you can convince people that a purchase is not only a basic economic transaction, but a social statement as well as a way to save the planet, you can get them to cough up twice as much dough.  It is, in a way, selling status, only this time around, the status being sold isn't having money or wealth, but sophistication - the idea that you are "smarter" than those plebes and their plastic grocery bags that choke the whales.

So, we were sold on this idea that the plastic bags used in the grocery store checkout, which are whisper-thin and represent a tiny fraction of the plastic disposed of in this country, are somehow raping the planet.   Thanks to the Bureau of Specious Statistics, we now know that these bags are "clogging landfills" and will "never degrade" and are right up there with disposable diapers and Big Macs as the all-time planet-rapers.

In some places, they have gone so far as to ban these bags, outright.   But to some extent, this has largely backfired.   In many jurisdictions, they now charge ten cents for each bag, which Wal-Mart is more than willing to collect and people are willing to pay.   In one jurisdiction on the West Coast, we were chagrined to see that Wal-Mart (and others) got around the law by making the bags even heavier (and thus having more plastic in them) so they could be "reusable" and thus not subject to the bag ban - a classic example of how a regulation with good intentions can backfire.

Are these plastic bags destroying the planet?  Well, like anything else, yes and no.  When people toss away the bags, they can be a nuisance.  Sea turtles eat them, thinking they are jellyfish - a white bag floating in the water can appear that way.  Some retailers have responded by making their bags grey or brown - looking less like jellyfish, but still causing problems when improperly disposed of. They flutter around in trees forever, clog roadside drains, and do other bad things.   But then again, so does other forms of garbage, including the old plastic six-pack rings and all that plastic and bubble-wrap that things from Amazon come wrapped in (but Bezos is one of us!  How dare you criticize him!).

If used responsibly, they are not hazardous.   We put ours in a plastic bag dispenser and use them as garbage bags for our waste cans in the house (I fold several and put them in the bottom of the can, so they are readily available).  In the camper, they work great for trash, as you don't want to have a lot of trash piling up in a confined space.  We save up bags all year long and use them up when camping.  Reusing these bags is one way to save money and to save the planet.  Yes, they will end up in a landfill.  But no, their impact is hardly as important as the trash they hold.

And the whole "We're running out of landfill space" thing was dreamed up by Mafia-run garbage companies what want to sell shortages to people and make money.

Plastic in landfills is an issue - but these trash bags are a tiny part of the problem.   Think about all the other things in your life made of plastic - such as your phone, your computer, most appliances today, and of course, your car.   Cars are getting harder and harder to recycle since the "good old days" when cars were made of steel, and, as Jay Leno put it, if you got into a wreck, they washed you off the dashboard and sold the car to someone else.

Today, cars contain an awful lot of plastics - and some are have plastic body panels.  As a result, a lot of what goes into our landfills these days isn't plastic shopping bags, but electronics, cars, and other conveniences of modern living.  Ever wonder what happens to old fiberglass boats when they die?  Yup, landfills.

It was a lot easier to recycle a car in Oddjob's day.

But people are concerned about these bags, and bans have been put into effect, including in North Carolina's Outer Banks region.   Many retailers are now forced to put groceries in brown paper bags.  This will come as good news to Georgia-Pacific.  Of course, some municipalities are banning or taxing even those.

One alternative being touted is to use reusable grocery bags.   These are semi-disposible bags that are often made of non-woven spun fibers - the same stuff that they make car covers and diapers out of (Kimberly-Clark being one huge innovator in this field).   For 99 cents to $2.99, we are sold these bags at the grocery store, and told to put our groceries in them, and then re-use them, again and again.

I have dozens of these bags, and try to use them.  The problem is, of course, you forget to put them in your car, and then when you get to the store, you forget to take them into the store.   It is a hassle, and eventually one tires of it and just goes back to the disposable plastic bag.

There is, too, the issue of the relative use of resources in these "reusable" grocery bags.  Since they are made of a non-woven spun fiber, they tend to rip easily, if they are overloaded.   They are not designed for the ages, but instead might last a year or two - maybe a few at most.   During that time, they might supplant a few dozen plastic grocery bags at most.   Which uses more plastic - the disposable grocery bags, or the non-woven spun fiber bag that you paid $1.99 for and lasted three years?  One "reusable" bag probably uses as much plastic as 100 disposable ones - and as much energy to make.

It is an interesting question, and one not being addressed anywhere.  I suppose you could go to cotton or canvas bags (or hemp, for all you fans out there) and they might last longer.   But the production cost of making those types of bags involves energy - and thus oil - to produce.   Your politically correct bag from a "fair trade" third world country probably used more oil just to transport it here, than the plastic bags it displaces.

Now, in the litter category, the re-usable bags win, hands down.   Few people would toss a used hemp bag by the side of the road - they would dispose of it properly when it breaks (smoke it?) not just throw it away.  And natural fibers, unlike non-woven spun fibers, will degrade over time, even if disposed of improperly.

But the "resuable" bags that most of us use are not natural fibers, but rather another form of plastic.  So all we are doing is trading one kind of plastic bag for another.   The use of resources and the disposal problem are about the same, I would guess.

And if you throw in washing these bags (which you will need to do, they get dirty over time) there is an energy cost there as well.  Overall, I am not sure there is a "savings" in terms of the planet or money, by going to reusable bags.

But I have them, so I might as well use them.   I've bought a few, but others were given to me, and yet others were "gimmie" kind of things from conventions and the like.  We also use insulated bags for perishables, since sometimes we drive a long way to the store.  But despite my best intentions - or laws passed banning bags or charging ten cents for them, I don't think my consumption of plastic bags or plastic in general has declined over the years.

But what about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch?   We all feel guilty about that here in the USA.  After all, it must be our fault that all this trash has accumulated in the ocean, as we are the world's largest user of plastics and, well, just about everything else.  We should feel bad about ourselves and our country - after all, we are raping the planet with our Big Macs and big trucks.

Or are we?

When we traveled through Mexico by RV (Note:  Don't do!) we rented a Mexican-made VW Beetle (they were still making them back then!) and went to the beach.   It was covered in trash.   By "covered" I don't mean a few pieces of litter here and there, but a solid wall of trash from shoreline to dune line.  At first we felt guilty - surely this was all garbage washing ashore from "Up North" - gringo trash destroying Mexico's pristine beaches!   But then we realized we were far too South for that to be the case.   And when a Mexican family showed up to enjoy La Playa, we saw why the place was trashed.

They carefully raked out a square about 20 feet by 20 feet (bringing rakes for that purpose) and made a clean spot in the sand to enjoy.   Over the next two hours, they proceeded to then dump trash everywhere.   Coke cans and bottles, chip wrappers, and most disgustingly, used baby diapers - and plural, too - like three or four of them, loaded with baby shit.   By the time they left, their raked-clean section of beach was indistinguishable from the rest of the garbage-filled beach.

And such it is in the rest of the world.   Most of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from Asia, not America.   In many Asian countries, littering is a way of life.   And in India as well.   My young friends who hitchhiked around the world (twice) recounted how on the Indian train, they ordered food which arrived in pink Styrofoam clamshells.  When everyone in the compartment was done with their food, they all threw these out the window of the train, along with other trash.  My young friend, wanting to be politically correct, put her used clamshell under her seat, to later "dispose of it properly."   The conductor saw this and grabbed it and tossed it out the window as well.   The train tracks in India are littered with trash - being environmentally conscious is not a way of life there.

It is funny - we feel guilty about raping the planet and global warming and whatnot, but the most polluted cities in the world are not in the USA.   Our pollution laws have reduced pollution significantly, and our environmental consciousness and habits mean we have less litter and garbage laying about than most other countries - outside of Europe, that is.  Maybe we aren't as tidy as Germany, but we are cleaner than China or Mexico.   And our emissions control laws and technology were far in advance of those in Europe, which is just now catching up (after trying to cheat their way out of it with Dieselgate).

And maybe these silly grocery bag laws are a sign of our concern and our efforts to improve the world.   Even if they are largely symbolic or ineffectual, they arguably raise awareness of the problems that occur when millions and billions of people start consuming and disposing of, plastics.

This isn't to say we are perfect or not a major source of pollution, only that it is a global problem, not a national one - and it will take international efforts to solve it.   And in that regard, global treaties that give a "pass" to the world's largest polluters (e.g., China) on the grounds they are "developing" nations, seems kind of short-sighted.