Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?

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"The plastic bags are so inexpensive that in the stores no one treats them as worth anything … they use two, three, or four when one would do just as well," he said.

First introduced in the 1970s, plastic bags now account for four out of every five bags handed out at the grocery store. "When you look at it as a product, it is an unbelievable success story," said Cobb.

The success of the plastic bag has meant a dramatic increase in the amount of sacks found floating in the oceans where they choke, strangle, and starve wildlife and raft alien species around the world, according to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England, who studies the impact of marine debris.

Barnes said that plastic bags have gone "from being rare in the late 80s and early 90s to being almost everywhere from Spitsbergen 78° North [latitude] to Falklands 51° South [latitude], but I'll bet they'll be washing up in Antarctica within the decade."

Bateman said that plastic bags are becoming a victim of their success. "The industry is at the stage where its success has caused concerns and these concerns need to be addressed responsibly," he said. Among other initiatives, Bateman supports the development of biodegradable plastic bags, a technology that has made strides in recent years.

Plastax to the Rescue?

Plastic bag litter has become such an environmental nuisance and eyesore that Ireland, Taiwan, South Africa, Australia, and Bangladesh have heavily taxed the totes or banned their use outright. Several other regions, including England and some U.S. cities, are considering similar actions.

Tony Lowes, director of Friends of the Irish Environment in County Cork, said the 15 cent (about 20 cents U.S.) tax on plastic bags introduced there in March 2002 has resulted in a 95 percent reduction in their use. "It's been an extraordinary success," he said.

According to Lowes, just about everyone in Ireland carries around a reusable bag and the plastic bags that once blighted the verdant Irish countryside are now merely an occasional eyesore. Cobb believes a similar tax in the U.S. would have a similar effect on reducing consumption.

The American Plastics Council is wary of such a tax in the U.S. They say it would cost tens of thousands of jobs and result in an increase in energy consumption, pollution, landfill space, and grocery prices as store owners increase reliance on more expensive paper bags as an alternative.

Bateman said the Irish tax of about U.S. 20 cents per bag is too high, but that a tax of 3 to 5 cents could have a positive impact on reducing plastic bag consumption by changing people's behavior.

"Having bags charged has some merits because it gets them used more responsibly," he said. For example, instead of a bagger using six bags to package a person's dinner, the bagger might use just two.

As for Cobb, he hopes people will begin to realize that paper and plastic bags both come at great cost to the environment and instead of scratching their head when asked which type they prefer, they'll pull a tightly packed reusable bag from their pocket.

"We want to make it cool to carry reusable shopping bags," he said.

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