When I was a kid the whole country switched from paper grocery bags over to plastic due to the pressure of professional environmentalists who wanted to save the trees. Most of you reading this have no memory of paper bags being used but it was quite something.
They came in about four or five different sizes and were kept in slots under the registers. And packing a paper bag was something of an art form for the “Baggers” working the check-out line. Like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle an experienced grocery Bagger would be sorting your items as the cashier rang them up: dry goods, dairy, meat, and frozen foods were all separated. Since you needed both hands to carry one the Bagger was expert at not making any bag too heavy. There was also a weight limit that each bag could take without tearing open on the side or having the bottom drop out. Frozen or refrigerated items were “double-bagged” so they wouldn’t soak the paper and fall apart by the time you got home. Your tall rectangular bags would be placed in neat rows in your grocery cart and often the Bagger would take the cart out to your car and help you load them into the trunk for a tip. Then you were on your own.
Getting home, you would then trudge the bags individually into the house using both hands to carry a single bag. There was a technique to this too: one forearm supported the bottom of the bag with an upturned hand and the other forearm formed an ‘L” shaped bracket and held the bag against your chest. Then, reaching the front door, you had to make a tricky move where you bent at the knees and, while still supporting the bag with your high forearm, you unlocked the door using just the wrist and fingers.
Then you returned over and over for your remaining bags. You pretty much had to be an adult male to cradle two bags at once in your arms without crushing the bread, eggs or cookies under the stern look of your wife or mother who was certain your oafishness would lead to disaster and “I told you so” reminders for weeks. When all the bags were unloaded they would generally be folded flat again and placed in the outside trash or garage, but you didn’t keep them in the house, ever.
“Why not?” you might ask.
Because of bugs. Paper grocery bags were kept in great piles in the dimly lit stock room of grocery stores and all kinds of bugs would crawl inside them and lay eggs — especially cockroaches and spiders. Leave them in your house for very long and you could have a serious problem.
Now the high-density polyethylene plastic bags were a miracle when they were introduced in about 1976. They were hailed as vastly superior to wasteful, dirty, bug-infested paper bags that were deforesting the country. They were invented by a company in Sweden which has always been on the cutting edge of profitable environmental sensibilities. They were ridiculously cheap to make and ship; they had handles that made them a breeze to carry; they could get wet without coming apart; bugs did not lay eggs in them; and they saved a huge amount of space in the stock room. But their major benefit was the ability to carry several plastic bags in one hand rather than holding just one large paper bag in both arms. That is what really turned people from Paper to Plastic, simple ergonomic utility.
Unfortunately, these plastic bags pretty much wiped out the need for grocery baggers at the checkout line in all but a few grocery store chains like Publix.
On March 1st, that North Star of Progressivism, New York state took a major leap backward, by banning the plastic bag and returning to paper bags, for which you will now be charged a fee (of course).
The professional environmentalists having saved the trees by switching from paper to plastic in the 1970s, now realize that we were all fools for listening to them and that we’re now killing the oceans with plastic bags.
So now, you will pay five cents each for a paper bag that will still be filled with items wrapped and packaged in plastic — but try to forget that.
You are saving the oceans.
You are a very good person.
Then again maybe not. You see, making a paper bag uses four times as much water and releases more than three times as many greenhouse gas emissions as a plastic bag. Also, paper bags don’t biodegrade in a landfill unless oxygen can get at them. And it doesn’t when they are buried under great mounds of other refuse.
Now you should feel like a monster.
“Ah-Hah!” you answer in defense, “I use cotton bags that are reusable.”
Well, so are plastic bags. People reuse the hell out of them, they line every small trashcan in the average American household and are reused as lunch bags, leakproof liners when we take food to a party, and even as wet paintbrush holders. Americans reuse the hell out of plastic bags. But let’s have it your way with a reusable cotton bag for a moment. Given the amount of energy and non-renewable resources expended to extract and make your cotton grocery bag, you’d have to reuse it 175 times for it to equal the global warming risk of a single-use plastic bag. If you go grocery shopping once a week that’s more than three years. But when you take into account the common reuse of plastic bags, you need to use that cotton one 400 times to match plastic’s low environmental impact. And don’t forget to wash them regularly or you will be bringing your food home in bacterial-growth farms.
So why is New York doing this? Why are other states following suit? Is plastic pollution a problem in the world? Sure, but not because of the U.S. We are a pretty tidy country as countries go. We bury, burn, and recycle our plastics very well. Each year about 180 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is produced, the U.S. generates about 29 million Mt a year. Asia produces about half of all the plastic waste. Europe produces more than us too. We really aren’t the problem when it comes to plastic pollution in the world or even the ocean. Of the top 50 cities mishandling their plastic waste, not a single U.S. city is on that map, but cities like Cairo, Manilla, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Calcutta, Sao Paolo, and Kuala Lampur are.
I did some math: a plastic bag weighs five grams and we use 102 billion plastic bags each year. If we totally eliminated plastic bags in favor of less environmentally friendly bags we’d save 510 tonnes of plastic. Remember, we produce 34 million tonnes of plastic each year and about 29 million Mt are discarded as waste yearly.
Saving 510 tonnes is a mere drop of water in a 29 million metric tonne swimming pool: it’s about .00001% of the total waste.
So why are New York and other states trying to ban plastic bags for less eco-friendly alternatives? During WWII Americans collected scrap metal, rubber, rags, grease, newspaper and even string for the war effort. Most of it ended up just sitting in huge piles unused. But it made Americans feel like they were doing something important. In another 50 years, we’ll probably switch back to plastic again to save the trees and the world all over again. Keep a few of those old plastic bags till then.