Greenspace: Plastic bags don't have to be part of our landscape

Jim Hillibish

I was outside playing the usual springtime game, pick up sticks, when I realized I was mostly picking up plastic bags.


This made me bag sensitive. As I drive around my town, I can go nary a block without seeing some.

I did some reading and found the worldwide demand for plastic bags is about 500 billion a year.

The problem is they’re a good product -- strong, handy, lightweight. They do the job. Then again, they take hundreds of years to degrade, if ever. So the bag you use will outlive you by centuries.

There’s another problem. The bags are great flyers. Kids make kites of them. They fly for miles on the wind. You find them 50 feet up in trees.

Everything we bought once went home in paper bags. Paper self-destructs when wetted or in sunlight, so it’s more environmentally friendly.

Paper’s downside is it’s made from trees. The process creates air and water pollution that must be addressed. Over the years, the cost has soared.

Plastic is made from oil. When the bags became popular 30 years ago, oil was cheap. Now it’s expensive, but the bags keep coming. It’s beginning to make economic sense for companies to offer alternatives.

You really see the problem on our seacoasts. Plastic bags are in the water and on the beaches. They eventually sink, the equivalent of plasticizing the feeding areas of shellfish.

The United Nations estimates there are 46,000 pieces of waste plastic in every square foot of ocean, most of it bags. Off the coast of California, currents have created a swirling vortex of plastic larger than Texas, according to the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

Coastal U.S. cities are taking the lead by banning plastic bags outright. San Francisco and Oakland have zapped them. Many others are forming policies to deal with the mess.

This is similar to 1990 when McDonald’s, facing public outrage, stopped using plastic containers, especially the infamous hamburger clam-shell box made of foam. They switched to paper and gained a lot of good will out of it.

Wal-Mart today is busy on the plastic-bag problem, as it is the biggest user of them. The company is rolling out a reusable, $1 shopping bag made from recycled products. It’s labeled “Plastic or Paper -- Neither.”

The bags are nicely designed with handles and are sturdy enough for years of use. They make a fashion statement -- that the user is smart enough to shun plastic.

I once just ignored the plastic bags, figuring they were an incurable part of our littered landscape. Then a bag flew into our oak tree out front three months ago. It’s up there 50 feet, flapping and bugging me every time I see it, which is all of the time. I’ve had it with these things.

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