Friday, April 5, 2013

Bagging the Ban?

When we moved to Pennsylvania nearly fifteen years ago, one of the things we brought with us was four sturdy plastic boxes provided by Sainsbury's, a British supermarket chain.  You bring the boxes with you to the supermarket (Sainsbury's used to provide special carts to hold them) and then stack your groceries in them to bring them home.  No bags involved.

After we figured out how to fit these things in the shopping carts our local Pennsylvania supermarket provides, we started using them every week.  (In between, they get used for many other storage purposes too.)  And pretty often - not every week, but maybe every month - someone will stop me or Liane when we are shopping and say, "What a great idea! I wish I could do something like that!"  And then, most likely, he or she heads for the checkout and the clerk double bags their groceries in plastic, as usual.

Grocery bag manufacturers tout their product as recyclable - which it is - but, across the US, less than 15% of plastic bags are recycled; if I've done my arithmetic right, that means that two or three million tons of bags go to the landfill each year.  I reverse-engineered these figures from data available at, an industry-sponsored website that opposes bans and taxes on plastic grocery bags - which many cities and local governments are introducing or considering.  (I found another website,, which tries to keep up on news of such ordinances from around the country and the world.)

According to the industry website, these bans are misguided.  Reusable grocery bags will make you sick!  And promote shoplifting! And plastic bags are recyclable, so that makes them a green industry!  14.7% of plastic bags were recycled last year, an increase of 23.8%! (Now there's a task for my math class, to figure out exactly what that means.)  If people can't use grocery bags to put their garbage in, they will have to buy garbage bags, which may use even more plastic!  (Not sure how that fits with the recycling argument, but still.)  Plastic bags are now made from natural gas, not oil! (That's all right, then.)  And finally the kicker - "More than 30,000 hardworking Americans are directly employed by the plastic bag industry.  In this time of high unemployment, we don't need another job-killing tax."

Now, all kinds of regulatory actions - even (perhaps especially) well-intentioned ones - can have unexpected consequences, which sometimes head in exactly the opposite direction.  Plastic bag bans would not be exempt.  So one shouldn't dismiss as ridiculous just because it is so obviously self-serving.  Still, that last point about jobs just makes me sad.

Meaningful work is a basic human need. But what qualifies as meaningful or worthwhile?  Can we imagine a future in which "meaningful work for all" means work that is not making things that are immediately destined for the landfill, is not burning up an inheritance that can never be replaced?

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