Green Kitchen Tip #10
It seems like everywhere you shop these days, whatever items you purchase are automatically slipped into a plastic bag or two. Unless you inform your checker, the assumption is made that even one easily hand-held item necessitates wrapping in a thin plastic sleeve. When you think about it, most of the produce we buy either gets grouped into its own plastic bag or else comes in a pre-packaged plastic shell.
Apparently every year 500 billion plastic bags are dispensed from stores across the globe. Many of these plastic bags are showing up in the ocean and in the internal organs of ocean mammals, of all places. Probably the majority of plastic bags end up in landfills, but only 1-3% will ever be recycled.
And it isn’t just hearsay that plastic bags have environmental advantages over paper bags. It takes four times as much energy to produce paper bags than it does to extrude plastic ones. 14 million trees were sacrificed in 1999, in order to fabricate 10 billion paper bags for American shoppers. Those were trees that once contributed to sinking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The paper bag industry avoids recycled pulp, because that would undermine the integrity of the finished bag. During production, paper bags contribute 70% more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than do plastic bags. At recycling time, it takes 91% more energy to recycle the equivalent weight of paper bags as it does plastic bags.
But that doesn’t negate the fact that the decomposition products of plastic bags are rather toxic and that plastic can be difficult to recycle unless it is free of contamination (including dyes often used to brand the bags with a store’s logo). In fact recyclers find plastic bag recycling to be uneconomical, therefore many of those to-be “recycled” plastic bags are showing up in India and China, where an absence of strict environmental laws allows them to be incinerated. During incineration plastics release toxic chemicals, including dioxins, which can lead to increased cancer rates.
So how do we stem the tide of plastic bag saturation?
Many grocery chains have noticed it is profitable to market their own re-usable grocery totes. I have found that the capacity of these totes is much higher than a plastic bag, which is handy when I buy a large amount of groceries. Juggling too many plastic bags can be encumbering. The trick with these totes is to get into the habit of bringing them not only with you, but also into the store with you. Store them in your car, or by the door if you walk to buy your groceries. Make sure they are in a very visible location, so you see them as you exit your vehicle, or your house. Keeping them in the trunk may seem the tidy thing to do, but they are easily forgotten there.
Even with the best intentions we can still attract miscellaneous plastic bags. The clean ones with holes should probably be recycled (hope for the best), the ones without holes can be re-used. Here are some ideas for re-using plastic bags:
- Why buy additional plastic garbage bags, when you can reuse your grocery bags for this purpose? Purchase a small garbage can that is short enough to support the weight of a filled bag. You may have to take the trash out more frequently, but this will reduce the chances of any lingering trash odors in your house.
- Store some in your car, or in any bags or purses you own. You never know when you might need a garbage sack. If you like to hike or walk in parks, you can do a good deed and pick up litter along the way.
- Donate them to daycare centers or thrift stores.
- If you walk your dog, or if pets use your lawn as a rest-stop, use them as temporary gloves to pick up deposits, then carefully turn them inside out, and knot them up.
- If you are particularly crafty, you can cut them in strips and crochet yourself a beautiful hand bag that will be more durable than a single plastic grocery bag. You could also weave floor mats in this manner. Someone should seriously sell these, for those of us who don’t enjoy crocheting. However, be careful to avoid exposing such items to excessive sunlight, as the plastic will degrade in UV light.
Source for most of my statistics.