Friday, January 21, 2011

Musings: Ode to the Plastic Bag

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.


Anonymous said...

On Maui their landfill is in the middle of the saddle and thousands of bags blow onto the aina in plane sight. Maui County budgets $100,000.00 a year to clean them up because they are visible. On Kauai our bags blow from the landfill into the ocean where they are not as visible. The bag ban is the right thing to do and will have a big impact.

Anonymous said...

What about the environmental racism that is going on by putting the next trash dump in the Puhi-Hanamaulu area? This district has already had many dumps, Halehaka, west of Old Puhi camp, and Ahukini come to mind. What about trash to power-generation?! Time to get serious about reduction, reuse, and recycling on Kauai nei!

Anonymous said...

Yeah I say unto you: it sure boggles the mind. The whole island and while I'm at it, the whole human race is TRASH! You Joan have put into words how overwhelming the problem is and how current solutions just aren't enough. But why end there, let's have forced sterilization and get rid of all these trashy humans that are not as thoughtful as the rest of us.
But lest one can accuse me of being a nazi, let's begin with one question: where is the best point to start changing this particular island's value system?
Who has the best answer? and what prize does he (she) win to make it worthwhile for others?
The major cities which pioneered the plastic bag ban are the same cities that are providing evidence of significant waste reduction. Something is working, perhaps not as well or as fast BUT there is no limit to good ideas that could come from making our island AWARE of the problem.
In terms of ideas to replace plastic bags, here's one that I read about & am doing: save cereal, chips, candy, etc. bags to supplement buying ziplocks; dried nuts, raisins, frozen food items come in reusable ziplock bags; the sun acts as a dryer & disinfectant, many bags don't need to be washed, just sundried.
Hope the image of the hundreds of thousands of albatross chicks that have died & are dying from plastic particles be splattered throughout our island so more folks can be moved to do the right thing. Contrary to popular belief, plastic bags break down into microscopic particles and end up in the marine life foodchain. Then we humans consume it all! There is justice after all.
Elli Ward

Anonymous said...

Good report Joan! Somethings to think about.

We just have too many people who do not care (ainokea)about throwing trash on the roads, beaches, and in their own neighborhoods. More laws will not change society's respect for the land (or themselves).

Perhaps education at home will?

Dr Shibai

Anonymous said...

"because ya know, paper bags just don’t cut it for wet, sloppy garbage."
I'm having rels inCO send me their used bags for my garbage.
Cheaper then buying the garbarge can liners

Anonymous said...

aloha joan, the goal of the plastic bag reduction ordinance is to reduce the amount of bags floating around wili nili kine. free bags aren't free and have negative impacts as you are so well aware of. there'll be plenty of plastic bags to haul the crap(dog doo pun intended) around; you just can't count on the freebies at the register. be creative and you'll find plenty options for wet bathing suits, fish guts and what not.
the bigger picture issue you raise (rampant and mindless consumerism) maybe highlighted by folks being a little inconvenienced by passing of the PBRO. how much shit do we need to buy before we are overwhelmed by it? we're in the midst of finding out. your post reflects what a lot of folks are wondering but mostly people can support it because of the connection to pollution and the negative impact on the environment. most of us don't want to contribute to the problem but rather take part in the solution. like you said, gotta start somewhere. ZWK is just trying to find ways for more folks to take part in the solution. hopefully as time progresses our community will better understand how the daily choices we make can improve and not impair the world we live in. actions and choices to reduce, reuse, recycle deserves encouragement and support. from there maybe we can continue to address the larger and equally important issues of environmental injustice, resource depletion and the decay of our natural world due to greed,corruption and exploitation. aloha aina,.....jt

Anonymous said...

Gandhi said "Be the change you want to see in the world." The choices we make as individuals have an impact - not only in terms of our own environmental footprint but also as an example for others.

Unknown said...

Aloha Ms. Conrow

Appreciate the dialogue you inspired in this little issue of plastic bags. My answer: The reason you enact the ban is the EXACT same reason you bothered writing about it: to inspire people to think about their impact.

In my view, the point you make about the overall impact is completely accurate. Diapers are clearly MUCH bigger impact in the landfill, and there is an endless stream of bags still out there that are still part of the waste stream. Wouldn't it be amazing if TGI voluntarily discontinued their issuing of those little orange plastic bags? (yes, yes, I know, those poor dog owners) Maybe your article gets some people to switch to cloth diapers or compostable diapers (or better yet - let 'em run around naked outside, that's how the natural system is supposed to work anyway, right?) Maybe it leads to a ban of styrofoam containers, or better, a voluntary conversion away from disposable items on a broader scale.

If we can get thousands of people participating in the discussion you and others are having about this silly little ban, then, from my view in the cheap seats, it is completely worth the price of admission.

Thanks for your work.
Ben Sullivan

Anonymous said...

ext i to get the Garden Iland to stop wrapping papers in those blue plastic gags, which one sees EVERYWHERE!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Joan, I have never ever bought plastic bags before, reusing the grocery ones ///now though, i've had to buy bags of different sizes, some 4 trash, some for other things, bottom line, i'm using more resources, more plastic. I already carried my cloth bag to the store, but could get a real bag when needed, this is a silly law, better to change behavior than legislate it.

Anonymous said...

"I agree with you Joan, I have never ever bought plastic bags before, reusing the grocery ones ///now though, i've had to buy bags of different sizes, some 4 trash, some for other things, bottom line, i'm using more resources, more plastic. I already carried my cloth bag to the store, but could get a real bag when needed, this is a silly law, better to change behavior than legislate it."

DON'T BUY PLASTIC BAGS!be creative, save your cereal bags, bread bags, produce bags,ice bags, bagel bags. No need buy MORE. LOOSE MONEY!

Anonymous said...

DON'T BUY PLASTIC BAGS!be creative, save your cereal bags, bread bags, produce bags,ice bags, bagel bags. No need buy MORE. LOOSE MONEY

I don't eat cereal, make my own bread and bagels, grow my own produce, so sorry i don't have those kinda bags. Guess, i'm alot more sustainable than you.

Anonymous said...

A debate of Eco-idiots

Anonymous said...

The bag ban is a beginning. It initiates a new paradigm shift of conscious consumerism.

Just BYOB ... bag and bottle. And stop whining!

Ideally we would not need laws to change our "evil ways"..wouldn't that be nice? Common sense for all!

What a wonderful world.

Anonymous said...

"It initiates a new paradigm shift of conscious consumerism."

Save the world! Put all those processed, plastic-packaged foods into your tote!!

Anonymous said...

Is The Garden Island newspaper exempt from the law? Does anybody know? Please find out. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the problem is the amount of plastic bags that your purchase, the problem that I see is the numerous bags that float along the highway on a daily basis. I live in Kapaa and work in Lihue and can easily say that I see 3 to 5 bags along the side of the road DAILY! This will help keep the litter off the side of the road and out of the water, where it is killing our marine habitat. Please take a look at those issues before commenting furhter.

Anonymous said...

Guys like Ben Sullivan, Tim Bynum, and all these environmentalists are so out of touch with our way of life because they are not from here. They have your typical "missionary" menatlity. Let's save the natives from themselves. Do us a favor and go save your hometown. Local people here already know how to recycle. We have been doing it before by using it in our trashcans. Surfers and watermen use it for their clothes. Gardeners use it to bring fruits over to the neighbors. This law is just a politcal statement. The impact is minimal. Ohhh this is a first step. Please....Ben Sullivan and Tim Bynum and friends, my advice to you. Go hangout with some real locals instead of just socializing within your little social circle. Then maybe you will know a little about our community. You mainland style is to stuff your crappy progresive beliefs down our throats. But really, all you are here for is to take advantage of our Aloha.

Anonymous said...

Is there any documented cases of plastic bags killing sea life? I can't find it. Please post source of info. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

really the law is rediculous, whaddabout those plastic bags that are compostable and break down really quick. think theyy had a bit of plastic, but predominately they break down quick.

Anonymous said...

"And will the single-use foam ice chests found in the backseats and trunks of so many cars rented by visitors"......

this could be the next banned item; styrofoam coolers. heck don't stop there...."ubiquitous foam take out containers " would make for another fine item to be banned from our garden island. this could steam roll into something big. the next thing you know we might get recycling island wide. whoa, talk about progressive, mayor carvahlo rox!

Anonymous said...

Maybe all you environMENTALists can pick up your dog crap with paper bags to save the earth. Wouldn't that be nice. Also, why is The Garden Island newspaper still being delivered in plastic bags? Are they special? I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't this debate have happened BEFORE the law had been passed?

Agreed on the GardenIsland - why are their blue bags special. They cause the most litter.

Anonymous said...

The point about raising the awareness is KEY! I have seen all "types" of people carrying their reusable bags. And there are still lots of plastic around for all the "needs", even without needing to purchase. At least it is one less plastic.

As for the biodegradable plastic bags suggested, I heard that Zero Waste Kaua`i advised against because they still require petrol products to produce.

Yes, there is still plenty of waste being shipped here by the big boxes, but at least there is some awareness being sparked..... And habits of always taking a bag being broken....

Anonymous said...

Another case of a vocal minority dictating to spineless politicians on which way we are going forward as an island. Forget about the locals. Thank God we have Rapozo back in. If people thought Asing was a bad chair they must be really having a laugh at Mr. "I have a lot of years in the hotel business." A message to Jay. The locals will remember how you have caved into Bynum and Yukimura. It really shows them how weak you are. Better grow a spine soon.