I just saw the film Surviving Progress at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, which lays out many dangers to human survival on earth, graphically portraying overpopulation and over-consumption. It makes you want to read the book that inspired it, A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright, and to do something, just one little thing right away to help the environment.
Here’s a very small thing we can all do: use fewer plastic bags. In itself, this is not going to save the earth, but it’s doable, and it’s helpful. Right now, fewer than 5 percent of American consumers use their own bags. The U.S. alone consumes about 100 billion plastic bags every year. Maybe you’re already a plastic-boycotter. I’m a well-intentioned, inconsistent one.
When I was a kid, every store used paper bags. Nobody worried about dangerous leakage from carrying your frozen chicken in a paper grocery bag. Now, the people in front of me at the grocery store insist on an extra plastic bag or two to carry their items, and the clerks sometimes fuss over my lack of plastic. “Are you sure you don’t want your milk in a bag? How about your bag of potatoes?” Why, I wonder, do I need to put my bags inside other bags?
So, what’s the problem with plastic? For one, plastic poses a danger to wildlife. National Geographic says, “The success of the plastic bag has meant a dramatic increase in the amount of sacks found floating in the oceans where they choke, strangle, and starve wildlife and raft alien species around the world, according to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England, who studies the impact of marine debris.”
In addition, plastic bags take 1000 years to break down, and they never really biodegrade. They sit in landfills or our oceans and lakes for centuries. You’ve seen them blighting our trees and landscapes. They’re everywhere. I snagged one blowing around my backyard yesterday. A few short decades ago, we got along fine without them.
Here’s what to do. Put a couple of tote bags from around your house (or cloth bags purchased from the store) in the trunk of your car. Then, you’ll have them with you when you stop at Target or the grocers. Remember (this is the hard part) to take them into the store with you. If you have no cloth bags, keep a couple of old plastic bags in the car to re-use.
You don’t have to be perfect. You’ll forget a lot of the time, but, gradually, you’ll start remembering to use your cloth bags. Clerks are much more cooperative about this than they were, even a few years ago. Sometimes, I used to get in an argument in the checkout line, because they didn’t think my bags were sanitary, or they just took offense for some reason. Now they usually fill up my disreputable bags without a peep.
Here’s another idea. If you’re just buying a tube of toothpaste, walk it out to your car and into your home with no bag. You can do it. Really.