This article was originally published in Teton Valley News on February 7th, 2013. It is reposted with permission.
Kids who are seniors in high school today know a world where televisions have always been flat screen, Britney Spears is classic rock, thermometers have never needed shaking, and groceries have always been bagged in plastic.
Prior to the 1980s, most stores offered paper bags for customers. The modern, lightweight shopping bag was invented by Swedish engineer Stef Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s, and popularized in 1982 when Midwestern grocery chain Kroger began replacing paper bags with plastic. Today, over 100 billion single use plastic bags are used each year in the United States alone. Cheap, light, and compact, they were once lauded for using less gas to transport than the heavier paper bags. Now, cities and countries around the world have banned them. Why the change of heart?
First, plastic bags are made from fossil fuels, either petroleum or natural gas depending on the maker. As public concern has shifted away from deforestation and towards energy independence, reducing plastic bag use became seen as one easy way to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
A bigger issue is the eyesore that plastic bags become when disposed of improperly. The lightweight bags are easily whisked away by water and wind, where they get stuck in trees, litter roadways, and clog waterways. Some make their way out to sea, where they can choke and tangle marine life and take an estimated 350 years to biodegrade. Scientists now believe that many kinds of plastic never biodegrade, but rather photodegrade into tiny pieces never truly disappear.
The impacts of plastic bags are more drastic in developing countries, where waste disposal often lags behind changes in technology and consumerism. In Bangladesh, plastic bags clogging drainage systems were a major cause of the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged much of the country.
As a result of the floods, Bangladesh banned single use plastic bags in 2002. Rwanda and Bhutan have upheld similar bans, while cities as diverse as Portland, Oregon and Mexico City have created local bans. Many other communities discourage plastic bag use through fees. Ireland’s plastic bag consumption dropped by 94% within weeks of introducing a 33-cent fee for each plastic bag.
In Teton Valley, we have incentives for consumers to bring their own bags rather than fees. Broulim’s offers a 5-cent discount per bag that can either be applied to your bill or donated to one of several local nonprofits through the jars on the back counter. Their cart return island posters serve as a friendly reminder to bring your bags. Keeping bags in your car or purse can help turn reusable bag use into a lasting habit. If you forget a reusable bag, you can recycle plastic bags in the boxes in the Broulim’s entryway. Other thin plastic film like bread bags, veggie bags, and the plastic film that wraps toilet paper can be recycled there as well.
To encourage more residents to bring their own bags, Teton Valley Community Recycling will be giving away up to 200 reusable shopping bags at the free showing of the movie “Bag It” on March 1st at the Wildwood Room. The event is sponsored by Targhee Protect Our Winters. For more information visit www.tetonrecycling.org.
Tanya Anderson is the executive director of Teton Valley Community Recycling. For more information, visit www.tetonrecycling.org.
Sources: The New York Times, BBC, Wikipedia, and The Mindset List