Taking another look at plastic use


I had always thought of myself as a responsible pet owner. Retracing the steps of my golden retriever, Rudy, on our walk down 53rd Street, I would be sure to collect every bit of his “mess.” A bread bag, perhaps used a time or two before, would do the job fine. I’d simply collect the specimen and toss the bag in the public garbage can on the corner, adding to the heap of countless other bags of dog mess. And then I’d walk away with a clean conscience, feeling good that I had given the bag a run for the money.

In fact, I was feeling pretty responsible in general. Having already established the habit of bringing reusable bags to the market or declining a bag when we forgot one, my family wasn’t accumulating plastic bags the way we used to. There were even days when we didn’t have a bag to take with us on a dog walk, but with all the empty chip bags blowing down the street, we always figured it out.

False consciousness came to a grinding halt a month ago when Rudy died. Suddenly, plastic bags have become a household nuisance, bulging out and spilling over from the bag rack in the pantry: produce and bulk food bags, takeout bags, vacuum bag bags … bag, bag, too many bags!

Plastic—a useful material in medical devices and space ships—is a synthetic, fossil fuel loaded, chemical-laden material that is dirty to produce, dirty to recycle and dirty to dispose of. It also lingers … for a really long time. Ironically, we’ve been using a material with a 500-plus year lifespan to make a whole mess of single-use convenience items that we’re done with after 15 minutes. Then, without thinking, we just throw it away.
But where is away? As it turns out, away is here to stay. And it’s costly.

I could go into depth about the costs to taxpayers over clogged sewers and how many cities and countries all over the world have banned plastic bags because of it. I could elaborate on human rights issues in plastic manufacturing and recycling, or perhaps explain some of the public health concerns associated with its production and use. You’ve probably already heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a plastic stew twice the size of Texas in the middle of the ocean—and its devastating effects on wildlife.

While over-packaged convenience-living has come to define our way of life, our purchasing decisions and moment-by-moment habits can add up to a changed trajectory. I watched the highly recommended documentary “Bag It!” and did some brainstorming of my own to come up with the following ideas:

  1. Think ahead. B.Y.O.B. to the grocery store, travel mug to the coffee shop and leftovers container to restaurants.
  2. Wean yourself from single-use disposable items of all kinds, especially plastic.
  3. Patronize local businesses that won’t require you to use their packaging, such as Medici Bakery or Bonjour Bakery, Hyde Park Produce deli counter, and the bakery and meat counters at Treasure Island.
  4. Pull out your cookbooks and put on your chef’s hat! Buy food from bulk bins using your own washable cloth bags, eliminating packaging entirely. Purchase reusable bags at reuseit.com.
  5. Refuse to buy anything that is over-packaged. Shop second-hand whenever possible.
  6. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Period.
  7. Reduce, reuse, recycle in that order.