I have a small stash in a drawer in my kitchen, and as is the nature of stashes, I am hoarding it, because who knows when I might get a plastic bag with handles again?
Actually, I did get one from a rogue merchant last weekend, after they were banned on Jan. 11 in an effort to reduce waste and protect the environment, concepts which I wholeheartedly support but remain unconvinced will in any meaningful way be achieved by prohibiting merchants from handing us our purchases in a plastic bag with handles.
Because I can still get baggies, both Ziplock and re-sealable, and produce/meat bags and 30-gallon garbage bags and kitchen trash bags — an item that for the first time in memory is on my shopping list because I need something in which to place my rubbish, small though the amount may be, given that I already practice the concepts of reduce, re-use and recycle, because ya know, paper bags just don’t cut it for wet, sloppy garbage.
Which got me wondering if the proponents of the Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance gave any thought to how many more plastic bags will be bought now that the free ones have been banned, because paper and reusable totes are not especially effective for transporting things in the rain or wet swimsuits or fresh fish or bloody meat (which I know a good environmentalist is not supposed to eat, but don’t tell that to canine carnivores like Pa`ele and Koko) or condensation-covered six packs of whatever or plate lunches, what with the gravy and juice prone to slop over the edges. And why, pray tell, were the ubiquitous foam take out containers allowed to endure, especially when there are biodegradable alternatives? Or for that matter, the little pieces of green plastic that adorn fish fillets sold in the market? Or the foam containers they rest on or the plastic wrap that seals them?
I understand that we have a waste problem on this island, what with the Kekaha landfill already overburdened, but it is hard for me to see how prohibiting plastic bags will significantly reduce the load, especially when all the babies are generating 10 to 20 dirty diapers each per day, and doesn’t one Pampers take up a lot more space at the dump than a plastic bag? But I suppose no one wanted to take on the mamas.
And then there’s all the waste associated with our main industries of tourism (ever seen how many plastic bags of trash come off a plane?) and construction. I used to wash out plastic baggies, and still do if they’re not too funky, but after watching a $5 million house being built, and seeing entire dumpsters filled with plastic sheeting, it kind of put my efforts into perspective.
The day the ban became effective, I went into Big Save and asked the cashier how things were going and she said that even when folks had a small purchase, they wanted one of the paper bags with handles, and in those cases, the cashier had to charge, because they are too expensive to be handed out willy nilly.
And that got me thinking of how the plastic bag ban hits hardest the small merchants and sunshine market farmers we are all supposed to be supporting, as in “buy local,” but Costco, meanwhile, keeps on importing containers full of stuff covered in hard plastic packaging, some of which is recyclable and much of which is not. Then they put your purchases into one of their cardboard boxes, many more of which, I’m sure, end up in the trash than otherwise would if Costco, like other businesses, were paying for their disposal.
I also got to wondering how much more fossil fuel will be burned and carbon emissions generated by shipping over those paper bags and cloth totes, which are far heavier than their plastic counterparts, and that doesn’t even factor in the possibility of whale strikes and other marine damage and pollution generated by the shipping industry, or the toxic effects of paper mills and growing cotton, or the sweatshop conditions of the places that sew those re-usable bags or the water and soap required to wash them. And then there are the cheapo totes, like the one given to me that already has ripped handles, rendering it essentially useless and so eventually destined for the landfill. Which is all to say, there is nothing pure or free of impact out there, so let’s not pretend that even a lofty concept like BYOB is somehow environmentally benign.
Yes, I know, or at least, I heard someone on the radio say, it's a start. But why, I keep wondering, start there?
I read the Mid-Week article on Zero Waste Kauai’s John Harder, who helped push the plastic bag ban through, and he was quoted as saying the bags are a major source of roadside litter, but as a person who daily walks the roads, I can tell you that while I see lots of ketchup packets and foam coffee cups and countless candy wrappers, I rarely encounter a plastic bag. But I do see people using them to pick up dog-doo, for which they are extremely effective, though the plastic bags that hold the newspapers tossed on island driveways each Wednesday work even better, and they, for some inexplicable reason, have not been banned, even though I see so many of them transformed directly into litter.
And while I’ve seen the heart-rending photo of the turtle with a blue plastic bag in its mouth, I must say that as an almost daily beach-goer, I do not often see plastic grocery bags there, either, aside from the odd one or two that may hold the smelly remnants of frozen bait squid left by a fisherman, and those I use to pick up some of the aforementioned dirty diapers and hard plastic, whose use will be allowed to continue unabated, though I have seen with my own eyes on Midway the carcasses of albatross chicks that never got a chance to fly because they were so weighted down, starved or dehydrated by the lighters and toothbrushes and bottle caps and other plastic crap that filled their stomachs.
Getting back to John Harder, the article had him saying that no one ever has a reason to buy bottled water, and so they may be the next item targeted, and while I do not buy that product myself, I wondered if they were also planning to go after all the plastic bottles that hold juice and soda and vitamin water and sports drinks, etc., or just water. Because I see a lot of beverage containers at the beach and along the road, even though each one is worth a nickel, a fee that was imposed supposedly to prevent them from ending their lives as litter. And will the single-use foam ice chests found in the backseats and trunks of so many cars rented by visitors, and the plastic bags of ice that fill them, also be drummed off the island?
Because while I’m all for the concept of malama `aina and I love the critters even more than most humans and I am fully aware of the scourge upon the world that is plastic, it seems to me that going after plastic bags is a feel good measure that directs a lot of time and energy and money into something that, in the overall scheme of things, won’t amount to a whole heck of a lot, while diverting attention away from the bigger, tougher issues, like how to wean ourselves from our addiction to the consumerism that plastic shopping bags — and totes and paper bags, too — represent and how to transform our economy into something that is not wholly dependent on bringing people, fuel and stuff from places far away.