When I started researching plastic bag laws for the “Plastics Challenge” issue of our Green American, I thought I was already aware of how wasteful and polluting plastic bags really are. After all, I’ve carried my reusable organic cotton shopping bags to the grocery store for as long as I’ve been old enough to do my own cooking. Aesthetically and practically, I simply prefer a roomy tote bag with a comfy shoulder strap to a fist full of flimsy plastic handles any day, so it’s always been an easy green choice to make.
But looking into the recycling statistics for plastic bags made me think even more about all the other plastic bags in my life – the plastic bags that I sometimes place into into those smugly green organic cotton totes (frozen veggies, or bulk grains, for example). The plastics industry certainly thinks of them all the same, grouping them together in a category known as “postconsumer film,” which includes other waste like newspaper bags, food bags, pallet wrap, and plastic product wrappers.
This collapsing of the category makes it tricky to suss out a statistic on how many plastic shopping bags get recycled in this country. The EPA’s most recent figure for the bags – 1 percent being recycled – dates to 2005, with all subsequent statistics addressing recycling rates for the overall “film” category. And in 2009 (the most recent year for which we have the stats), the film category was ENORMOUS. The American Chemical Council reports that the plastics industry produces about 854 million pounds of “film” annually, with amounts increasing every year. Of this category, the EPA reports that we recycle 9 percent. Together these two statistics don’t tell a pretty story: That’s more than 770 million pounds of packaging trash that was created to be used once, temporarily, to transport something, and then dumped onto our planet. That’s insane!
The numbers make me want to take new steps to stop being part of such an insane system, and I have a couple of ideas for next steps.
For example, through reading my colleagues’ work on the Green American, I discovered that companies in our Green Business Network™ make super-light and thin bulk-purchasing bags for produce, nuts, and grains (like these, or these, or these, or these). That’s one step to take, to eliminate the plastic bags from the bulk bins.
A second step I want to take is to reduce the number of food-packaging bags I put into my shopping bags, and on that topic, I have a true confession to make: About five years ago, I decided I needed to put a check on my plastic-food-packaging habit. I told myself that with better planning, I could eliminate buying frozen fruits and vegetables in plastic bags. As a visual reminder that the plastic stays with us for a looong time, I stopped throwing away my frozen-food bags, and instead washed and folded them and stored them away.
As the bags piled up, my purchasing habits improved. I started canning more fruits and vegetables in the summer, freezing my own food in reusable containers, and just being overall more mindful of buying fresh over frozen. However, I’m still adding to the pile — just adding to it more slowly – and I’m thinking that’s not enough. I’m wondering if 2012 will be the year I go cold turkey. Can I stop my plastics pile from getting any bigger by committing to eliminate this entire category of “stupid plastic” from my life?
Help me out readers: What are your strategies for consuming less plastic when you go to the grocery store? And just as important, what should I do with my cache of “stupid plastic” bags?