It’s the timeless grocery store rivalry—paper, or plastic? How about, “Neither. I brought my own.” Sounds easy enough, but half the battle is remembering to actually bring those eco-friendly reusable bags back to the store. It’s easy to forget them, lose them, or simply not use them, because it takes a lot less effort to just use store bags, regardless of how bad they are for the environment. Convenience usually wins over eco-consciousness.
Let’s just say you accidentally forgot to bring your reusable bags with you to the store and are forced to choose between paper or plastic. It’s okay. It happens. So, under all that pressure of deciding which is more reusable and which is easier to carry, you choose plastic. You might be able to use it to pack your lunch for a few day, but let’s face it: eventually that bag is going to end up in the trash. The trash can is only the beginning of the toxic journey discarded plastic takes once it leaves your home.
Plastic bags are made mostly from a non-renewable oil energy that produces polyethylene. Polyethylene is cheap to produce, durable, and resistant to chemical breakdown, making it difficult to recycle. Not to mention, to reuse polyethylene requires two-thirds of the new product created to be made from new plastic. Plus, the actual recycling process take a massive amount of non-renewable energy. Sounds pretty bad. Well, it only gets worse.
Plastic never goes away, so every scrap of plastic ever produced still exists and will continue to exist indefinitely. Plastic that is not recycled is dumped (usually into our oceans) and ends up being a deadly snack for an unsuspecting animal. The most horrific graveyard of used plastic is located in the Pacific where tons of discarded polyethylene and other plastics have accumulated to make an island of plastic debris twice the size of the entire state of Texas. Plastic is bad news for the environment and consumers.
With all this discussion on paper, plastic, and B.Y.O.Bag programs, there are rumblings in some states about legislation that would require retailers to charge a nominal fee for each plastic bag used by consumers. Further legislation in the works could eventually end the use of plastic bags altogether. In California, law currently requires retailers to create an in-store recycling program allowing consumers to return used plastic bags. Some argue that banning the use of plastic bags will just force consumers to opt for paper, which is just as damaging to the environment. Essentially your “paper or plastic” decision is really a decision of deforestation or depletion of non-renewable energy.
While state legislators navigate the pros and cons of a long term solution to the use of complimentary retailer bags, many stores have taken their own initiative to be part of the solution and voluntarily adapt before law requires them to.
Pioneers in the reusable bag sector like Trader Joe’s and IKEA have been waging war against plastic bags for years now. They offer reusable bags or charge consumers for plastic ones. In 2007, IKEA stopped charging for plastic bags and bagged their plastics for good. Whole Foods followed suit a year later. Starting next year, retail giant Wal-Mart will stop offering plastic bags—so if you forget your reusables, you better bring some back up to help carry your loot. The pilot program for Wal-Mmart will start in Northern California.
Other retailers are joining the pro-active effort against plastic waste by offering incentives to customers for their forgone use of plastic. Both Ralphs and Target give customers a five-cent rebate for each plastic bag they don’t use, and CVS pharmacies credit shoppers with one dollar for every four plastic bags they do not use.
Retailers are starting to pull their weight in the fight against plastic pollution, but we as consumers have to do our part. Spending a few bucks on some reusable bags is pretty futile if they never make it back to the store. Don’t forget your reusables. Here’s some tips on training yourself to say “no” to paper or plastic and making a habit of using your own bags:
- Every time you come home from shopping, make it a habit to unload your groceries and immediately put your bags back in your vehicle or hang them on your door knob. Don’t wait – you’ll forget.
- Set an alarm on your mobile phone or PDA to remind yourself not to forget. Or cover your dashboard, rear view mirror, hatch back and gear shift with post-it reminders.
- If you make a grocery list before you go shopping, add “Remember Your Bags” to the top of your list.
- Make a statement. Purchase really bright-colored reusable bags so you will actually like carrying them around. Trader Joe’s offers cool prints on their bags and they’re really inexpensive.
- Build up a collection of reusable bags, so you’ll have enough even if you’re buying mass quantities of groceries. That way you won’t end up with a plastic bag because you ran out.
- Try this reusable bag from ChicoBag that scrunches up into a convenient keychain—that way you’ll always have it with you!