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In the wake of a growing grassroots movement in some communities to ban the usage of plastic shopping bags, there is a great piece worth reading this morning on Salon.com that lays out the argument against what is described in no uncertain terms as “an environmental scourge.”

Reporting on an expedition of young people fishing trash out of the water of an American lake, Salon writes:

“This morning, a turtle feeds serenely next to a half submerged Walgreens bag. The bag looks ghostly, ethereal even, floating, as if in some kind of purgatory suspended between its briefly useful past and its none-too-promising future. A bright blue bags floats just out of reach, while a duck cruises by. Here's a Ziploc bag, there a Safeway bag. In a couple of hours, I fish more than two dozen plastic bags out of the lake with my net, along with cigarette butts, candy wrappers and a soccer ball. As we work, numerous passersby on the popular trail that circles the urban lake shout their thanks, which is an undeniable boost. Yet I can't help being struck that our efforts represent a tiny drop in the ocean. If there's one thing we know about these plastic bags, it's that there are billions and billions more where they came from.

“The plastic bag is an icon of convenience culture, by some estimates the single most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth, numbering in the trillions. They're made from petroleum or natural gas with all the attendant environmental impacts of harvesting fossil fuels. One recent study found that the inks and colorants used on some bags contain lead, a toxin. Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they've been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It's equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

“Only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide -- about 2 percent in the U.S. -- and the rest, when discarded, can persist for centuries.”

For those who think that the anti-plastic bag movement is made up of just fringe environmental crazies, the evidence would seem to suggest that it is, in fact, gaining mainstream status: “Following the lead of countries like Ireland, Bangladesh, South Africa, Thailand and Taiwan, some U.S. cities are striking back against what they see as an expensive, wasteful and unnecessary mess,” Salon reports. “This year, San Francisco and Oakland outlawed the use of plastic bags in large grocery stores and pharmacies, permitting only paper bags with at least 40 percent recycled content or otherwise compostable bags. The bans have not taken effect yet, but already the city of Oakland is being sued by an association of plastic bag manufacturers calling itself the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling. Meanwhile, other communities across the country, including Santa Monica, Calif., New Haven, Conn., Annapolis, Md., and Portland, Ore., are considering taking drastic legislative action against the bags. In Ireland, a now 22-cent tax on plastic bags has slashed their use by more than 90 percent since 2002. In flood-prone Bangladesh, where plastic bags choked drainage systems, the bags have been banned since 2002.”

The resistance to plastic bag bans, it seems, is more about economics than the environment: “Unlike a glass beer bottle or an aluminum can, it's unusual that a plastic bag is made back into another plastic bag, because it's typically more expensive than just making a new plastic bag. After all, the major appeal of plastic bags to stores is that they're much cheaper than paper. Plastic bags cost grocery stores under 2 cents per bag, while paper goes for 4 to 6 cents and compostable bags 9 to 14 cents.”

Some will say that plastic is a better alternative than paper bags, but Salon notes that “it will be a sad irony if outlawing the bags, as San Francisco and Oakland have, doesn't inspire shoppers to bring their own canvas bags, but simply sends them to paper bags, which come with their own environmental baggage.”

Here’s the bottom line, according to the environmentalists interviewed by Salon: “The only salient answer to paper or plastic is neither.”
KC's View:
You should go to Salon.com and read this piece. I found it fascinating and scary all at the same time, and it frames the issues that, I believe, are going to be pushed to the forefront in a lot of communities. I have two canvas shopping bags in the back of my car; after reading this story, I’m ready to go out and buy a few more this weekend. (You can read more about this issue in Your Views, below.)

I’ve said this before. We’re not there yet, but I can imagine a time, in five years or so, where this will be a non-issue – that the momentum against plastic bags usage will be so great that it won’t even be up for debate. It may not get to that point, but I wouldn’t bet against it. So, it seems to me, retailers have to start making decisions now. Do we fight the movement? Or do we try to anticipate where the customer is going, and work hard to be identified with the solution rather than the problem?

If it were me, I’d vote for the second option. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be fast. It will take a lot of consumer education, and there will be some blowback.

But I think this is where the consumer is heading, and I think it makes sense for retailers to get there first, or at least at the same time.