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Distracted By Plastic Bags

Please note that I am a firm believer in reducing our consumption of oil based goods, including disposable plastic bags. What I don’t agree with, is the hijacking that is taking place in the consumerist culture we live in. That is the point of this post.

As the financial system tailspins and sputters about and the Canadian government assures us that the Tar Sands are good for the nation; I’m reminded just how much of the everyday news we receive is marketing spin. And unfortunately the greenies are just as distracted by it as many other people. Words such as sustainable, “good for the environment”, and worst of them all, “green” are popping up on products made by companies who’s CEO’s must have a hard time looking in the mirror. Ultimately, we are being marketed a picture of a choice, and in many instances, the products we’re purchasing are still made by workers in near slave-like conditions, overpackaged, overpriced, and surrounded by false claims and advertising catchwords.

[ad#200-left]But it doesn’t just stop at the products we by, it follows through to the bags we choose to use. The social phenomonen of the reusable shopping bag has disappointed me like few other environmental hijackings. Often the bags are made from the same toxic chemicals, sometimes consuming way more water in their manufacture, and are printed with dyes and paints that are toxic. These bags are then sold or handed out as though they are a superior, green solution to the biggest problem we face as a society. That our throw away culture should dare to use a few grams of plastic to carry a few pounds of groceries, then, heaven forbid, use it to wrap up some stinky garbage. Sin of all sins, we must repent!

Now, I get the message that we have to start somewhere as a society, but making individuals feel good about an action that barely registers on the scale of useful, meaningful importance for the planet, is frankly a load of tripe. To have a resident or shopkeeper look down at the person who forget to bring their precious reusable bag when they have thousands of disposable ones sitting next to the check out? Come off it. I’m not saying that plastic bags are good – what I am saying is that the easily exploited commercial opportunities from reusable bags make a mockery of the real needs of a sustainable future. These needs are well spelled out in the book Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change by Pat Murphy – emphasizing the need for a strategy of radical culture change, dramatic conservation and curtailment of energy use.

NPR recently aired a segment on the reusable bag challenge…

Anya Hindmarch"Im Not A Plastic Bag"...
Image by msdm via Flickr

And it’s not only habits at the grocery store that will need to change. Once people no longer have a ready supply of old grocery bags stashed at home, they will have to find new ways to pick up their dog poop or line their bathroom waste baskets. If people just go out and buy other plastic bags, it will defeat the purpose.

Ultimately, even if we eliminate billions of grocery bags from the market, how much good will it do?

“I hate to say it, but not much,” Lilienfield says.

In the big picture, he says, the big fuss around shopping bags is really just a distraction.

“The bag is not the environmental bogey-person that everybody thinks it is,” he says. “If you look at the entire grocery package that you bought, the bag may account for 1 to 2 percent of the environmental impact.

“The other packaging may account for 7 percent. Ninety percent is accounted for by the products you buy. That’s where all the environmental impact is.”

Source: How Green Are Reusable Bags? : NPR

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Those who feel that saving the world one plastic bag at a time will be wondering where they went wrong when the bigger issues of peak oil, climate change, population, and the economy gang up on us. It is all related, but a narrow focus on a negligible, feel-good solution is trivial when society, and the government that represents us, can’t make sweeping reforms that would actually make a difference.

Democracy has become confused with the biggest complainers (or consumers) getting their way, in this case, it is the retailers and the manufacturers who refuse to change packaging, (not because it is more expensive, rather that there would be less advertising space if there was less packaging. Is a world driven by advertiser’s needs the pinnacle of democracy? If so, it is little wonder that these reusable bags are so popular – they typically give better advertising space than a flimsy disposable bag!

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

3 thoughts on “Distracted By Plastic Bags

  1. Every little habit we can change increases our capacity to change habits, on an emotional and practical level.
    I say: Let me and all the other spoiled first world people learn to bring our own bags.
    Let us handle something again and again, instead of throwing it away. Let us develop that little, under-exercised part of our minds that governs planning ahead and being a tiny bit more engaged in the consumer process.

    The false feelings of virtuousness will wear away — but our capacity to change a habit will have grown. This is nothing to sneeze at.

    Today, we ditch plastic bags.
    Tomorrow, we support CSAs.

  2. Thanks for eloquently stating the other side of the argument for encouraging change through small steps! I hope you are right, but I fear that the marketers are a step ahead of us.

  3. And to think that when its labelled reusable. I trusted it really is reusable. I agree that there can be easily exploited and we consumers should be aware of such.

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