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.”


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


  1. Donna says

    While stationed in Djibouti in 2005-06, I was one of the few who actually got outside the wire (off base). While escorting media who wanted to know what we were doing in the Horn of Africa, I got to see many towns and villages in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Djibouti, Eritrea, Yemen.

    What bothered me most, after the obvious poverty and corruption, was how much waste was thrown about. Plastic bottles and colorful plastic grocery bags were everywhere. In Djibouti, where the only plant that seems to grow in its volcanic terrain is a thorny bush that feeds the goats and camels, you find what the locals call their “national flower” (plastic bags) clinging to the thorns. Pastel blues, greens, reds and yellows merge on these thorny bushes to create a “blooming” garden. The locals use a legalized narcotic, Khat, to temper their poverty and desperation. The Khat is flown in daily from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and distributed to thousands of busy entrepreneurs who stuff bunches of the tasty leaves into the small 1000-year biodegradable bags and sell them to the poorest of villagers beginning at 10 a.m. In their drug-induced stupor, the villagers smash the leaves into their mouth, sit down in whatever shade they can find, and toss the bag to the ground…not caring where it goes after that.

    Because Djibouti doesn’t have a plant to clean the amount of water it needs to satisfy its citizens, plastic bottles of water are delivered by the pallet-full daily on planes from Yemen, Kenya or Ethiopia. Like they do with the Khat, local “business people” purchase as much as they can and pile it into beat-up, carboratorless pickup trucks and take it to remote areas and sell it for big profits. Driving along the main road, the only one leading from Djibouti city to the northernmost parts of the country and its borders with either Ethiopia or Eritrea, I noted thousands upon thousands of plastic bottles strewn about. Lake Asal, one of the country’s few tourist-like destinations and home to the hottest spot on the globe (a sweltering average 124 degrees), is jam-packed with empty water bottles that will likely multiply in droves and won’t break down for thousands of years, if at all.

    What’s more, when the Djiboutian government decided to clean up, it would send trucks around and scoop up a few loads. The trucks would deliver to the dump the collected debris; plastic bottles, old tires, batteries, boxes, paper, clothing, and whatever machinery was tossed out. Then, you’ll love this, they burned it all. On burn nights (once a week), people stayed in and those of us who needed to be outside our tents did so with masks. Carcinogens abound!

    I imagine this is quite similar to what is happening in developing nations world-wide.

    As Dick said, “…collaborative action by like-minded individuals often trumps collective action through elective government…” However, it appears to me that by the time we Americans get our “shit” together, the rest of the world will have done their part to overshadow any successes we have.

    I’d like to see us all get serious about protecting the Earth. I’d like to see us all make it a personal effort to save natural resources, energy and money by recycling, reusing and reducing our production and use of wasteful items.

    When I first arrived in Africa, I drank approximately 12 bottles of ice-cold water each day. After seeing the bottles all over the continent, I stopped drinking bottled water. I’m one person but I thought, “wow, that’s 12 x 30 days x 11 months; my bottles won’t make a real difference, but I won’t feel guilty.”

    Let’s all do our part to reduce, reuse, and recycle while we scream loudly till the world hears us and does the same. Let’s guide our children to do the same. Let’s do more than baby steps.

  2. ecosurfer says


    Your article arrived in my inbox alerts at the same time a notification that my new biofilm ran successfully at the plant in San Bernardino. Perfect timing !! For three years I have been researching and waiting for the BIoPlastics industry to catch up with my desire for a non food source bioplastic flexible packaging film that is BPI certified to use for our snack bags.

    The solutions and the alternatives are out there but like you said we need “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.”

    Our SoCal company hopes to soon start a change in the way tortilla chips are packaged in California.

  3. says

    Every two weeks I put out for recycling ca. 40 lbs. of paper. I never buy newspapers. Most of my junk paper consists of catalogs I neither requested nor read. Some of the paper may be already recycled, to be sure. Everyone is disposing at least the same amount as I. There should be a law prohibiting the sending of unrequested paper. (I can already hear the GOP screaming . . . )

    • says

      It’s especially bad during political campaigns. Our mailbox is flooded with brightly colored cards, letters, and booklets from the various campaigns, which we never read, barely glance at. Often. there’s two or three from the same candidate on the same day.

  4. jk says

    We need a tax on trash. Charge a 15 cents for each bottle, cup, or bag, and then pay someone 10 cents for turning it in. Tax potato chip bags too.

    The can return value tax has worked pretty well for cans. You hardly find a can on the street anymore.

  5. Marshall says

    I have a large box of plastic bags in the garage, I also have a large number of paper bags from the food stores and I recycle them. Lowes and Walmart do not offer a paper bag, only plastic, but we all should reuse or recycle as much as we can. My county has a recycle program but when I look down the street on recycle day, I only see a few recycle bins. My trash can is also half full and many others have so much in them the lid is still open.

    The trick is have the trash man note which homes recycle and give them a few dollars off their montly bill. Most people will not take the time to do this recycle thing. nice try though.

    • says

      Marshall: From my reading for the article, it appears that only a small proportion of plastic bags — 5% or less — get recycled. And it’s cheaper to make a new plastic bag from scratch than it is to use recycled bags.

      The financial incentive that seems to work is the opposite of what you’re saying, namely to charge for the use of either paper or plastic bags, which both generates funds for cleaning up the environment and encourages people to switch to reusable cloth bags.

      I must say that using the cloth bags is a no-brainer, and the only reason I didn’t do it earlier is that I’m such a creature of habit.

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