Investing in plastics was logical a half a century ago. Nowadays, while profitable, petroleum products cause a multitude of problems.
[A]n estimated 180 million plastic bags are distributed to shoppers each year in San Francisco. Made of filmy plastic, they are hard to recycle and easily blow into trees and waterways, where they are blamed for killing marine life. They also occupy much-needed landfill space.Although the sheer textile seems more sanitary it may be less so. Early on, the use of synthetic fibers was considered the saving grace. Entrepreneurs and environmentalists thought man-made wares would eliminate the deforesting of the planet. However, this petroleum product has proven itself to be anything but a solution to ecological hazards. Actually, plastics have added to our waste and wasteful ways.
What we use to dispose of our garbage creates more trash. Essentially, items are no longer reusable. We have become a throwaway society. For the sake of convenience and an ill-perceived idea of cleanliness, we are destroying our natural resources and dirtying the planet.
Thankfully, late in March 2007, the city of San Francisco decided to do something about this situation. They said "No" to plastic, or at least the bags.
The city's Board of Supervisors approved groundbreaking legislation Tuesday to outlaw plastic checkout bags at large supermarkets in about six months and large chain pharmacies in about a year.Perhaps, they will. After all, San Francisco is following the lead of foreign cities. Internationally, there is a movement to ban or discourage the use of plastic bags. The environmental effects are of great concern in countries from Ireland to Australia. Similar legislation was introduced in Scotland three years ago, the United Kingdom also discussed taking action years ago. On March 2, 2007, the British nation finally took action. However, details are still pending. Also belatedly, but bravely, the avant gardé city by the Bay approved a ban weeks ago.
The ordinance, sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, is the first such law in any city in the United States and has been drawing global scrutiny this week.
"I am astounded and surprised by the worldwide attention," Mirkarimi said. "Hopefully, other cities and other states will follow suit."
Under the legislation, which passed 10-1 in the first of two votes, large markets and pharmacies will have the option of using compostable bags made of cornstarch or bags made of recyclable paper. San Francisco will join a number of countries, such as Ireland, that already have outlawed plastic bags or have levied a tax on them. Final passage of the legislation is expected at the board's next scheduled meeting, and the mayor is expected to sign it.Still, all is not well. As is typical, retailers remind those that care about the environment, there will be a price to pay.
The grocers association has warned that the new law will lead to higher prices for San Francisco shoppers.Compostable carriers may be costly; however, I believe these parcels are invaluable. We have been paying for convenience and low cost containers with our lives for years. Although the compostable sack may be expensive initially, production and use of these is worth the investment. It is essential that we endow in the future. The waste that we create daily now does not serve us for more than a moment.
"We're disappointed that the Board of Supervisors is going down this path," said Kristin Power, the association's vice president for government relations. "It will frustrate recycling efforts and will increase both consumer and retailer costs. There's also a real concern about the availability and quality of compostable bags."
Power said most of the group's members operating in San Francisco are likely to switch to paper bags "simply because of the affordability and availability issues."
The ubiquitous plastic shopping bag, so handy for everything from toting groceries to disposing of doggie doo, may be a victim of its own success. Although plastic bags didn't come into widespread use until the early 1980s, environmental groups estimate that 500 billion to 1 trillion of the bags are now used worldwide every year.Yet, businesses think that is fine. In 2004, the Earth Resource Foundation proposed a twenty-five  cent tax be charged on plastic bags used in the state of California. In 2003, the California Legislative Branch scrapped a three  cent levy on plastic shopping satchels and cups. Retailers and plastic manufacturers worked in opposition to the measure. Money talks, as do industrialists. It is easier and cheaper to commit to the status quo than it is to change. Minor adjustments might be made. Place the onus on the people. Persuade the public to be more involved; that may work.
Critics of the bags say they use up natural resources, consume energy to manufacture, create litter, choke marine life, and add to landfill waste.
"Every time we use a new plastic bag they go and get more petroleum from the Middle East and bring it over in tankers," said Stephanie Barger, executive director of Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, Calif. "We are extracting and destroying the Earth to use a plastic bag for 10 minutes."
The plastics industry took a "proactive stance" by working with retailers to encourage greater recycling, rather than "putting on taxes to address the problem," said Donna Dempsey, executive director of the Film and Bag Federation, a trade association for the plastic bag industry.Imposing tariffs would take its toll on the industry. State imposed duties have decreased the use of plastic parcels in other countries. The American Bag alliance knows sales will slip. For them, a compulsory tax would be disastrous. Particularly when we consider that consumers in other nations where the tariff was obligatory, have not complained.
The tax proposals are loosely modeled on Ireland's "PlasTax," a levy of about 20 cents that retail customers have had to pay for each plastic bag since March 2002. The use of plastic bags in Ireland dropped more than 90 percent following imposition of the tax, and the government has raised millions of dollars for recycling programs.While the reduction of bags is great and it is vital that we begin where we can, there are other considerations.
Similar legislation was introduced in Scotland last month and is being discussed for the rest of the United Kingdom.
Consumers seem agreeable to giving up the bags, said Claire Wilton, senior waste campaigner at Greenpeace-UK.
"There certainly hasn't been an angry uprising of shoppers (in Ireland) saying we want our bags for free," Wilton said. "I think a lot of people recognize they are wasteful. That's why they try to save them to use again, although they often forget to bring them with them when they shop."
In Australia, about 90 percent of retailers have signed up with the government's voluntary program to reduce plastic bag use. A law that went into effect last year  in Taiwan requires restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores to charge customers for plastic bags and utensils. It has resulted in a 69 percent drop in use of plastic products, according to news reports.
One of the key concerns is litter. In China, plastic bags blowing around the streets are called "white pollution." In South Africa, the bags are so prominent in the countryside that they have won the derisive title of "national flower." The plastics industry says the solution to bag litter is to change people, not the product.Granted, mankind is responsible. S/he is liable for more than the little bags that fill our land, the air, or the sea. Currently, it is impossible to escape the impact of plastic on American life. Decades ago, glass bottles were replaced with plastic. Cardboard storage boxes, were thought buggy and dirty; plastic was a clean alternative. Clay pots, once used to propagate plants, are porous, and better for a thirsty, thriving, growing seedling; however, currently these are less popular. As Mister McGuire might say, "Plastics."
"Every piece of litter has a human face behind it. If they are a harm to the environment in terms of visual blight, then people need to stop littering," said Rob Krebs, a spokesman for the American Plastics Council.
Furniture is plastic. Picture frames, eyeglasses, and "silverware," are all made of plastic. Even our clothing is polyester; in other words, plastic. The solid metal car bumper years ago could withstand impact. It protected the people inside the vehicle. Today, if an automobile moving three-miles an hour was to crash into another object, the impending accident could cause thousands of dollars of damage. Why might this be? Plastic.
A child's swing, once wooden and wonderful is now plastic. I am familiar with this childhood toy for I love to move backward and forward while seated in the sky. In decades past, I may experience an occasional splinter. In recent years, with thanks to the prevalence of petroleum products, the motion is uncomfortable. My skin is pinched; it sticks to the surface "fabric." Sweat forms; ultimately the moisture becomes an irritant, just as the oft-heard phrase, "Plastic, or paper" might be to some.
If I were to choose, "compostable" would be my preference. I trust the cost of production will decrease as the use of biodegradable bags increases. The more manufacturers invest in machinery to make this product, the better the price. Overtime, I believe we can eliminate the use of plastic bags.
Nevertheless, I still ponder the problem. As I sit at my computer, type on a plastic keyboard, use an artificial "mouse," and watch a screen encased in a fake frame, I trust that the banning of bags will only begin to address an ever-increasing environmental issue.
A Sack Full of Fuel . . .
Plastic bags by the numbers
Roughly, the number of plastic shopping bags distributed in San Francisco each year.
2 to 3 cents
Amount each bag costs markets, compared with anywhere from 5 to 10 cents for a biodegradable bag.
This figure will change as we alter our focus.
4 trillion to 5 trillion
Number of nondegradable plastic bags used worldwide annually.
Amount of oil needed to produce 100 million nondegradable plastic bags.
Source: S.F. Department of the Environment; Worldwatch Institute
Bags of Resources . . .