Pondering plastic bags, and plagued by ambivalence

By Jayson Jacoby July 23, 2010 11:08 am

I don’t hate plastic grocery bags.

I struggle in fact to muster even a respectable level of disdain for these ubiquitous totes.

Although this one time a sack, traveling alone and propelled by the desert wind, wedged into the rear derailleur of my mountain bike and mucked up one of the sprockets.

And since I was riding the bike at the time this intrusion was something of a nuisance.

But that paltry anecdote pretty well covers my personal antipathy for this category of container.

This makes me feel rather like an outcast.

Just lately I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people harbor what seems to me real animosity for plastic bags.

The other day I saw on the TV news where a couple of people were prancing about in downtown Portland, festooned with bags. The sight disturbed me slightly, as the prancers (or perhaps they are dancers) acted as if they had been afflicted by some sort of palsy, or else subjected to considerable voltage. Although I’ll concede it’s possible that the accumulation of plastic was throwing off their balance.

Also, I couldn’t tell if they were wearing actual clothing beneath the sacks.

Anyway, the purpose of this spectacle, from what I could gather, was twofold: to protest plastic grocery bags; and to support a proposal by Portland Mayor Sam Adams that would not only ban plastic bags, but also impose a nickel tax on paper sacks.

Draping yourself with your opponent is certainly a clever way to go about making a political statement — sort of like Chris Dudley hauling John Kitzhaber around on his back while filming a negative ad.

I was inclined to dismiss the episode as a mere stunt, as relevant as people who drench themselves in chocolate syrup to symbolize the ravages of the BP oil disaster.

(I’ll bet there are plenty of pelicans who wish they were so lucky. Hershey’s cleans up a lot easier than crude oil does; tastier, too.)

Except that, as Portland’s pending ordinance proves, the anti-bag contingent includes not only people with a queer sense of fashion, but others who have been given the authority, by voters, to pass anti-bag legislation.

Being a frequent user of such bags, I figured I ought to understand the myriad hazards they pose not only to relatively disposable entities like myself, but to less easily replaced things like the Earth.

The bag bashers have assembled a strong case.

Americans go through something like 100 billion of these flimsy repositories every year, which is a fair number of anything that’s not biodegradable.

I had hardly gotten Google warmed up before I was reading about famished sea turtles who went looking for a tasty meal of fish and wound up with a gut full of plastic that once contained somebody’s six-pack.

(The beverages themselves no doubt held having been held together by yet another plastic device, which was also discarded and which, even as you read this, is strangling an innocent gull.)

Although plastic grocery sacks can be recycled, hardly any of them are.

At least not in the typical way, which is being processed into some other product.

Many bags are, however, re-used, if only as trash receptacles.

(Although I noticed the Baker County Library put some bags to a much more noble purpose during Miners Jubilee: They were offered to customers who came out of the annual book sale with especially hefty burdens.)

According to studies, though, the vast majority of grocery sacks, whatever their less savory detours, share an ultimate destination: a landfill.

Estimates vary, but it seems that no more than about 3 percent of the bags end up as litter, subject to the vagaries of wind.

(And derailleurs.)

Although even 3 percent can be a lot, if it’s 3 percent of 100 billion.

Also, it takes only one out of 100 billion to foul up a bike chain.

In any case there’s something like 97 billion sacks going into our trash heaps every year.

This is not a healthy trend, it seems to me.

What’s not clear, though, is whether it’s a particularly deleterious trend.

Compared with, say, mercury or antifreeze, plastic bags are benign. They will over time degrade, though, and their chief ingredient — usually natural gas rather than oil, as is commonly cited, the implication being that gasoline would be a lot cheaper if we’d just ban the bags — is not something I want pouring out of my kitchen faucet.

Or any of my faucets, come to that.

But I’ve not seen any evidence showing that the immense accumulation of sacks is fouling our aquifers.

Not yet, anyway.

Of course we’d been exploding nuclear bombs for a while before strontium 90 showed up in our soil, so I’m not exactly sanguine.

But neither am I much persuaded that the heavily promoted alternatives to plastic offer us, or our planet, any real panacea.

Making paper sacks, which ruled the grocery scene before the chemists got to messing around, consumes about 40 percent more energy.

Plus you have to cut all those trees.

(If we’re denuding forests I’d prefer that the byproducts are ones that people can live in. And paper sacks, for all their utility, make for a pretty poor living room. Especially after it starts raining.)

The more righteous replacement for plastic these days, though, is not paper but rather the reusable bag, preferably made of cotton or hemp or some other stout, renewable substance.

(I’ve poked around in some of these bags and the tags say they were constructed of polypropylene. I’m not sure exactly what that is but it sounds like plastic to me.)

The premise is sound enough.

I’m all for buying a bag that you can use for years in place of tossing half a dozen plastic ones in the garbage bin every time you go to the store.

Of course the reusable sacks aren’t quite so versatile.

I wouldn’t, to cite one graphic example, use one to gather the little piles your dog leaves in the yard.

Those piles have their place, and it’s not where the checker puts my package of pork chops.

Except it turns out that, speaking of fecal matter, the stuff can infect your Earth-friendly sacks even if you don’t own a dog.

Last year a couple of independent labs swabbed the insides of a bunch of reusable totes and in many cases they detected not only fecal coliform, but also other bacteria, yeast and mold.

The bags, especially when they’re folded (which they’re conveniently designed to do), apparently are almost as effective as a petri dish for incubating all manner of microscopic stuff that you wouldn’t let get anywhere near your intestines if you knew it was there.

Of course it’s no great task to wash a bag.

Except that uses water. And if you’re serious about killing the fecal coliform (and if ever there was a topic to be serious about, that’s the one), you’ll probably need a dollop of bleach too.

And further sullying the reputation of reusable bags, I looked at half a dozen that my wife uses and every one, representing two major national grocery chains and one non-grocery bag-maker, was made in China.

And since these bags, unlike the plastic ones, aren’t readily transported by wind, I suspect some ship or plane burned a mess of hydrocarbons to bring the bags here.

In the end, despite my misgivings, I still have to cast my environmental vote for the reusable bags over their plastic and paper counterparts.

Although I’m not convinced that our habit of burying billions of plastic sacks in our landfills every year poses a grave threat to the planet, I also think it’s awfully silly for us to keep doing so if better alternatives exist.

Yet it also seems clear to me that, despite their advantages, those fashionable accessories draped across many shoppers’ shoulders these days are not as guilt-free as we’ve supposed them to be.

Probably the only way to get your groceries home and maintain a crystalline conscience would be to carry your staples in your arms, which isn’t exactly practical.

Have you ever tried to balance a half-case of Henry’s on top of a watermelon?

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.