Baby Steps in Plastic Bags

plastic waste

LA Public Works removing debris caught by booms from the LA River after a storm event. (Courtesy Algalita Marine Research Foundation)

As I indicated in ”Pointing Our Oily Finger,” the Gulf oil spill disaster has spurred me to see how we might cut back on our energy consumption. Switching our home to solar power, moving to an electric-powered car, somehow cutting down on my long commute, doing more walking and biking, eating less meat—they’re all on the year-long docket. Saturday, bringing home a load of groceries from Trader Joe’s in five newly purchased reusable cloth grocery bags, I took my first baby steps.

I don’t pretend that my individual action will have any great effect on the damage our society is doing to Mother Nature. If I threw all 500 plastic bags it’s estimated I’ll use this year off the Manhattan Beach Pier—sure, I’d get my butt thumped if the surfers saw me do it—but the Pacific could take the rabbit punch. Three days later, I bet you would barely know what I had done.

But what if all hundred people at my workplace followed suit? That’s 50,000 plastic bags per year that wouldn’t be fouling the environment. Or the 800 members of my church? Another 400,000 bags not killing wildlife. All 10 million LA County residents? Five billion bags. All Californians? That’s 19 billion bags—and now we’re waist deep in the Big Plastic.

Nor can I pretend that these individual actions—even undertaken by individuals in large numbers—will make a huge dent in the nation’s energy use. Manufacturing—and war making, in particular—consume the lion’s share of our energy resources, with individual American’s accounting for just 20%. But this attempt to address my own wasteful energy use will take not one bit of focus from our magazine’s efforts to encourage government, industry, and our neighbors to become more conservation-minded. Indeed, any efforts Sharon and I make as individuals will only put us in a better position to influence action by others.

plastic waste with albatross

Kure-Atoll Albatross and the trashed beach (Courtesy Algalita Foundation)

Why Bother Conserving?
The simple answer is that I like to get my hands dirty. Talking about issues, arguing the details, even publishing broadsides in the LA Progressive is all fine—Lord knows, we do enough of that—but at some point, I like to get off my duff and grab the working end of the shovel. Doing this investigation—and even taking this simple step of using my own cloth grocery bags—feels like something concrete.

More broadly, collaborative action by like-minded individuals often trumps collective action through elective government, in my mind. Witness the Civil Rights movement: A few dedicated pioneers, then a few more, then masses of people agitating for social change over years until society and its government had to bend.

Or take what happened with cigarette smoking in my lifetime. When I was a 16-year-old kid in 1963 sneaking into Buster’s, the businessman’s bar in downtown Minneapolis where several of my underage friends and I found we could get served, the air was always blue—deep indigo blue—with cigarette smoke. If you didn’t smoke at Buster’s, you could either go stand outside in the snow or sit there and bear it.

I didn’t start smoking for a couple more years, but at Buster’s I almost wished I did, as the off-duty cops, insurance agents, and newspapermen who frequented the windowless dive looked so rakish and raw with an inevitable Pall Mall dangling from their lips, like latter-day Humphrey Bogarts.

The same was true when I went off to college in New York City at 17, and later into the Army, to driving a cab, working construction, and tending bar; for the next 20 years, people smoked. Sure, some wise souls abstained—maybe lots of them—but they always had to do the accommodating. We smokers called the tune.

Look at it now. You can hardly smoke driving in your own car here in California, never mind anyplace another human being might want to go. Now, after sex, about all you can do is fall asleep—sorry, Hon.

A War on Smoking? A miracle anti-nicotene drug? Laws passed by Congress? Not a bit of it. Sure, government played a role by taxing the bejeezus out of tobacco products, and law enforcement would sometimes crack down loudly on merchants who sold cigarettes to minors or smugglers bringing in cartons from the Carolinas. And the medical profession played a pivotal role pounding into us what a dumb thing smoking is through public service announcements.

But what really happened was that we Americans as individuals and groups put pressure on ourselves and those around us that cigarette smoking was not a cool, never mind healthy, thing to do. The rakish dude with the Marlboro stuck in his mouth now just looks like a sick fool driving up our health insurance rates.

That, I warrant, is what will happen—and is happening—on conservation issues. Individuals, then small groups, then great masses of us will bring pressure to bear on energy conservation issues, which will eventually give us enough power to force significant change.

Ireland offers a perfect example. Several years ago, in a determined effort to deal with litter, the Irish government began charging 33 centers for each plastic bag, accompanied by an advertising campaign.

Then the magic happened:

“Within weeks, there was a 94 percent drop in plastic bag use. Within a year, nearly everyone bought reusable cloth bags, which they now keep in the office and the back of their cars. Plastic bags became socially unacceptable – on par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after your dog.”

Viola!

Santa Monica Assembly member Julia Brownley has introduced legislation to ban single-use bags that may have a similar effect. If passed, stores in California can no longer provide plastic carryout bags to their customers. Stores will either have to provide reusable bags for purchase or offer paper bags that will carry a 25 cent green bag fee, which would support a Paper Bag Pollution Cleanup Fund.

At some point very quickly, we may reach that tipping point where it will no longer be socially acceptable to use plastic bags

Saturday Morning at TJ’s
All of which put me in line at Trader Joe’s with a basketful of groceries and six bright red cloth bags to carry them in. I do most of our family’s grocery shopping. Sharon raised two kids mostly as a single mom, so “Frugal” is her middle name. She goes shopping, we’ve got precisely the right ingredients in exactly right amounts for the lovely dinner she’ll cook tonight—and maybe something left over for the morning.

Me? I’ll forget the list, get things we don’t need—currently it’s bananas—and miss things we do need, but by God, we’ll have food for the week.

I’m a creature of habit, too. If I get a routine going, I’ll do it until the wheels fall off. I played racquetball with my buddy Eddie for eight years, twice a week at 6 a.m., rain or shine, like it was a drug. Before that, it was four years of tennis with Jerry, Bill, and Paul. I reckon using these cloth bags will be something like that, and if they put it into my head each week that I’m working on conserving energy, those thoughts will likely carry over to other conservation needs.

The Algalita Marine Research Foundation tells us what’s at stake:

  • Around 80 million plastic shopping bags end up as litter in our environment each year. It takes plastic bags up to 1,000 years to break down and, because they are lightweight and moisture resistant, they can travel long distances and cause environmental problems in many places.
  • The World Wildlife Fund estimates that over 100,000 whales, seals, turtles, and birds die every year as a result of plastic bags.
  • In becalmed seas east of Hawaii, an area twice the size of Texas called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains a “plastic soup” where trash from all over the world collects. Every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, outweighing the amount of plankton by a six to one ratio.
  • Because plastic breaks down through photo degradation—meaning that it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces over hundreds of years—it enters the food chain, causing choking, intestinal damage, and starvation, and then killing the birds and larger fish feeding on the original animals who attempt to eat the plastic.

Dick Price
The Algalita website provides a list of organizations involved in conservation here in Southern California.

Next up, I plan to look at what desert scaping our small lawn might save.

Dick Price, Editor, LA Progressive

Published by the LA Progressive on August 3, 2010
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About Dick Price

Dick Price is Editor of the LA Progressive. With his wife Sharon, he publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. He has worked in publishing as a writer, editor, and publisher for a quarter century. In earlier releases, he was a cab driver, bartender, construction worker, soldier, and farmhand, and for many years helped operate a nonprofit halfway house for homeless alcoholics and addicts. To contact him, please use the form on the Contact Us page.