What Shall We Do About Plastic Bags?

The fate of plastic bags is up in the air. While we ponder their future, they’re accumulating by the millions in countless landfills (or worse, in our oceans).

Before plastic bags existed, people wrapped things in paper bags (generally brown ones). My mother stuffed our sandwiches into waxed paper bags (which didn’t work very well to keep them fresh). Retail stores offered their own paper bags featuring stores’ logos. And the paper shopping bag eventually made its appearance.

When plastic bags first came on the scene in a big way in the 1960s, they were a revelation. They were lightweight and could be folded inside your purse or briefcase, allowing you to reuse them. They kept wet things from getting everything else wet. They were useful for wrapping smelly garbage (and, eventually, smelly diapers).

Once I discovered the virtues of plastic bags, I began saving them, and saving them, and saving them. I still do. My deplorable status as a “saver” has led to a huge stash of colorful plastic bags. I justify it by constantly reusing them.

Despite their many virtues, plastic bags have become a menace, and the movement to ban plastic bags is gaining steam. San Francisco led the way in 2007 as the first city to ban them. Initially banning them at chain grocery stores and drugstores, SF extended the ban to all retail stores and restaurants in 2012.

Since 2007, plastic bags have been banned in nearly 100 municipalities in the state of California, and right now Los Angeles is the largest city in the country to enforce the ban. According a recent article in The New York Times, more than 150 communities across the U.S. have embraced some sort of bag ordinance. These include cities like Honolulu, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Even New York City is moving—slowly–towards a ban. In March the city council introduced legislation that would charge customers a fee for both plastic and paper bags at most city stores.

Wherever plastic bags are currently banned, paper bags are available for a small fee. (Most retailers in San Francisco now charge 10 cents.) So here in SF, we rely more and more on paper bags. And that’s OK. They tend to be biodegradable and recyclable, and many San Franciscans use them to store items destined for recycling until we can get to a bin.

We also use even sturdier reusable tote bags in bright patterns and colors. My favorites are large tote bags made from recycled plastic bottles, like those featuring color reproductions of classic Audubon prints, available for a donation to the National Audubon Society.

But plastic bags still offer some distinct advantages. They’re great repositories of smelly wet garbage, they don’t fall apart in the rain, and they can be repurposed as trash-can liners and lunch bags. Banning them completely would mean saying goodbye to all that.

But the winds of social change are blowing through California, where some legislators are now vigorously proposing a total ban on single-use plastic bags throughout the state. A similar statewide ban has been proposed before. But the plastics industry, with millions of dollars to spend on lobbying lawmakers, has so far succeeded in quashing these efforts.

The Times reports that one of the largest manufacturers of plastic bags, Hilex Poly, spent more than $1 million in California lobbying against a 2010 effort that, not surprisingly, failed. According to The Times, this South Carolina firm later donated to every Democrat in the California Senate who joined Republicans to defeat another bill proposed in 2013.

This year support for a statewide ban has new momentum. The Los Angeles Times has endorsed it, and several legislators who opposed the bill last year have made a U-turn and announced their support.

Another manufacturer has even jumped on the bandwagon. Command Packaging has started increasing its production of heavy-duty reusable bags, made from recycled agricultural plastic, and now supports the current bill. The California bill would allow stores to offer these more durable plastic bags—for a fee–alongside paper ones.

Not surprisingly, environmental groups are in hot pursuit of the ban. The California League of Conservation Voters recently recited the grim statistics: Californians still use an astonishing 20 billion plastic bags every year. Because they aren’t usually recycled, they contribute to marine pollution as well as urban pollution. California has a long coastline, and many of its rivers and streams lead right into bays like San Francisco Bay and the ocean. CLCV estimates that most plastic bags ultimately end up in the ocean, where 60 to 80% of all marine debris is plastic. Captain Paul Watson, executive director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, estimates that 7 million tons of plastic are currently floating in our oceans.

The result is horrific. Birds, fish, and animals like sea otters drown, suffocate, or are strangled by plastic bags. Sea turtles, whose diet is largely made of up jellyfish, frequently mistake plastic bags for their favorite food and die when they consume them.

The long-term solution to plastic bags may lie in composting. In San Francisco, where composting of food scraps and items like food-soiled paper plates and cups has been mandatory since 2009, we can purchase biodegradable plastic bags in which to stuff our compost. As the rest of the country moves toward composting, this kind of bag will become more readily available, and the problem of non-biodegradable plastic bags will largely disappear. Unfortunately, the increasing use of composting won’t happen very soon.

I strongly support the proposed statewide ban in California–although I admit it’s easy for me to support it, thanks to the immense supply of plastic bags lurking in my closet. Because of the new momentum favoring a ban, plastic bags appear to be on the endangered list, at least in California. And let’s face it, once it happens in California, it will begin to happen elsewhere in the U.S. Someday our great-grandchildren will gaze in wonder at the colorful plastic bags displayed for their amusement in the museums of the future.

But in the meantime, are there are any new uses for plastic bags that would justify their continued existence?

A Nigerian artist has come up with one. Ifeoma Anyeaji, a Nigerian artist visiting at the Godown Art Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, was the focus of a profile in the Daily Nation last September. (The Daily Nation is an independent and influential Kenyan newspaper headquartered in Nairobi.) According to a Lonely Planet publication on Kenya, the Godown Art Centre is “a hub for Nairobi’s burgeoning arts scene.”

Once she arrived there, Anyeaji (known as Ify) began collecting discarded plastic bags. As a visual artist, she could use commonly used media like oil and acrylic. But she chose to work with plastic bags and bottles to promote the reusability of discarded materials. She sees plastic bags as “a global issue,” polluting the environment, “and so I thought of a way to make use of them.” Her technique? Threading and weaving the bags, ultimately creating colorful structures. This technique resembles the traditional hair-braiding and fabric warp-weft weaving popular in Nigeria. As a little girl, Ify was good at threading, the art of weaving hair with threads, “and this is the technique I wanted to incorporate into my work.”

Preparing the bags isn’t simple. After collecting the bags, Ify cleans and shreds them. Then she wraps them into strings, like ropes, and works them into intricate patterns. The patterns are then shaped into structures, including furniture, some of which is functional as well as works of art.

Ify sees herself in a broader context, noting that the world is mainly composed of recycled ideas, where one concept is borrowed and then embellished to be used elsewhere. Her view of the art world, and of herself as part of it, may have been influenced by her time studying in the U.S. After receiving her degree in painting at the University of Benin in Nigeria, she studied art at Washington University in St. Louis, receiving a graduate degree in environmental sculpture.

So…until we see the total demise of the single-use plastic bag, we can treasure creative people like Ify and hope that these bags will be repurposed, becoming useful and perhaps even beautiful objects. Unfortunately, Ify will almost certainly have an ample supply for many years to come.

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One response to “What Shall We Do About Plastic Bags?

  1. Susie— I liked this post a lot. —Chip

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