Many countries and a handful of American cities have more or less done away with this supposed convenience item, by discouraging its use through plastic-bag taxes at checkout counters or outright bans. Walk down the streets of Dublin or Seattle or San Francisco and there is barely a bag in sight. Life continues.
“It didn’t take people very long to accommodate at all,” said Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention in Seattle, where a plastic-bag ban took effect last summer. “Basically overnight those grocery and drugstore bags were gone.”
Similarly, a newly inaugurated bag ban seems to have gone off without much of a hitch recently in Eugene, Oregon. The patchwork of dozens of local ordinances across California banning this “urban tumbleweed” may soon be supplanted by a statewide ban.
Nevertheless, across most of the country, the bags multiply at a seemingly exponential rate. This is problematic, to say the least. As Katharine Mieszkowski wrote a few years back in Salon,
The problem with plastic bags isn’t just where they end up, it’s that they never seem to end. “All the plastic that has been made is still around in smaller and smaller pieces,” says Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation, which has undertaken a Campaign Against the Plastic Plague. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. That means unless they’ve been incinerated — a noxious proposition — every plastic bag you’ve ever used in your entire life, including all those bags that the newspaper arrives in on your doorstep, even on cloudless days when there isn’t a sliver of a chance of rain, still exists in some form, even fragmented bits, and will exist long after you’re dead.
Or to put it more succinctly, let me quote Alan Weisman again: “Polymers are forever.”
Rosenthal notes in her piece that old habits die hard:
“We have to get people to start carrying reusable bags,” [Ron] Gonen, [New York City’s deputy commissioner of sanitation for recycling and waste reduction] said. “We’re going to do what we can to start moving the needle.”
“The question,” he continued, “is do we use a carrot or a stick to change behavior?”
So far New York has used carrots, to little effect…. Unfortunately, most experts believe it will take a stiff stick to break a habit as ingrained as this one is in the United States. (In many European countries, like France and Italy, the plastic bag thing never fully caught on.)