Right about the time we moved to Eugene, Oregon last year, the city passed an ordinance banning plastic bags. All retail businesses, including grocery stores, department and clothing stores, convenience stores, and local markets were required to provide only recycled paper bags to consumers—for an extra five cents.
That nickel-per-bag fee doesn't get earmarked towards any environmental efforts or anything, it goes directly back to the retailer. It's intended to encourage the use of reusable bags, and thus reduce litter and non-biodegradable waste.
Despite Eugene's reputation as something of a hippy enclave, this was hardly a cutting-edge move in terms of promoting green living. Other Oregon cities had already been participating in the plastic bag ban, as well as major metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin. Still, reactions from citizens have been predictably passionate, with some cheering on the new regulations and some vowing to drive to the adjoining town of Springfield in order to exercise their god-given right to hear that comfortingly familiar question: "Paper or plastic?"
I really wish I could tell you that I've been perfectly accepting of the bag ban, but I have not. I haven't quite worked myself into a curmudgeonly-letter-to-the-editor frenzy, but I've done plenty of complaining about it, and here's why:
- Checkout clerks have clearly experienced some negative response about the bag fee from shoppers, because they always over-stuff every single bag to cut down on the total number I have to pay for. I've taken to explaining up front that I'd much rather pay an extra ten cents than have a bag split open and drop a carton of eggs in my driveway.
- Recycled paper bags don't typically come with handles. Raaaaaaaaage.
- Reusable bags create long, slow lines, because the clerk has to unfold them and arrange them just so and deal with the fact that every one is a different shape and size. I know, I know, I'm a horrible selfish person, but grocery shopping with kids is enough of a pain without extra delays.
Every checkout conversation now sounds like this to me:
Clerk: "Did you need to buy paper bags today?" (Because you're a selfish earth-destroying asshole who couldn't be bothered to bring reusables?)
Me: "Yes please. Thank you." (Shut up, I forgot them. Yes, AGAIN. Plus have you noticed how gross reusable bags get after a while? I'd like to know just how much E. coli is lurking in the bottom of those damn things).
Clerk: *silent judging*
Me: *defensive stance*
The truth is, I know I've been petty about what amounts to some very small inconveniences. The bag ban isn't going anywhere—in fact, in July the City Council voted to keep the mandatory five-cent charge in place after fee opponents asked for stores to be given the option of charging consumers for paper. So it seems obvious to me that I can keep bitching and complaining … or I can suck it up and do my part to support a worthy environmental effort.
Some facts that have been helping me get a sense of perspective:
- Before the ban, Eugene residents were using an estimated 67 million single-use plastic carryout bags each year.
- An estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, 380 billion of those in the U.S.
- The average percentage of plastic bags returned for recycling: one percent
- Number of barrels of oil required for US annual plastic bag consumption: 12,000,000
- Number of marine animals killed each year due to plastic bags: 100,000
When plastics break down, they don't biodegrade; they photodegrade. This means the materials break down to smaller fragments which soak up toxins. They then contaminate soil, waterways, and animals upon digestion.
Paper bags have their problems too, obviously. Making paper often causes more pollution, and consumes more energy and water than making plastic does. The best solution is exactly what Eugene is hoping for with the plastic ban and paper fee: a cultural shift away from disposable bags.
I will likely always secretly prefer to receive free bags of my choosing when I buy groceries, because that's how it's always been. But as I'm trying to teach myself and my children, being more environmentally aware isn't about making the most convenient choices -- or refusing to change ingrained habits simply because they're familiar.
How you help yourself to remember to bring reusable bags to the store? And what do you do to keep them clean?