When it comes to choosing between paper and plastic bags at the grocery store many of us are left confused, unsure, even shamed.  Plastic today.  Paper tomorrow.  Does it even matter?  “Paper or plastic” has become analogous to the trends of globalization that marks our age of consumerism.  Driven by consumer demand and need, the issue stands as a slogan for environmental sustainability and communal health, born from the grassroots of a budding independently thinking public.  It’s about time we begin to think for ourselves.  It suffices to say, this latest trend to go green is something we can and should all embrace with a “fresh” conscience.  Organic, local, all natural – this is the kind of branding that might just help save the planet, and us.   Therefore we must ask ourselves: when we choose between paper and plastic, what are we really choosing? It’s not about throwing the dice at the checkout counter; much like casting your voting ballot, it is a call to action to propagate change that will exact a revolutionary effect to benefit generations to come.   This worldwide insurgency begins and ends with each one of us.

The single-use shopping bag was invented by a Swedish company in the mid-Sixties as a byproduct of the oil-refining process, and was later brought to North America by ExxonMobil, introduced to grocery-store checkout lines in 1976.   The plastic shopping bag revolutionized the way we began to shop for food.  Unlike paper bags, plastic ones are waterproof, durable, able to support 1000 times their own weight and cheaper to produce.  However plastic bags are not environmentally sustainable, and are not only toxic to our global ecosystem but to our health.  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 35 of the 47 chemical plants producing plastics ranked the highest in carcinogenic emissions.  Furthermore DEHP, a chemical used to stabilize the plastic, has been shown to reduce fertility and acts as a neurotoxin, while vinyl chloride, one of the key ingredients in plastic bag manufacturing, is a proven carcinogenic that may contribute to liver, kidney and brain damage.

While plastics presently account for roughly four percent of global oil production, they are also difficult to recycle (due to the loss of quality and function in the re-melting process) and are not biodegradable, (it can take up to 1000 years for a single plastic back to break down).  In addition, plastic bags destroy aquatic wildlife.  Hundreds of thousands of marine animals die each year after ingesting plastic bags, which choke and block intestinal functionality.  Moreover plastic bags produce visual pollution, and buttress the observation of a wasteful society.   Sobering statistics reveal that the United States alone uses 100 billion plastic bags a year, which requires roughly 12 million barrels of oil.  When plastic bags can be found tumbling along the tips of the Himalayas or swaying at the bottom of Mariana’s Trench, it is evident the system we have created is seriously flawed and immediate changes must be made before it’s too late.

A worldwide movement to reduce dependability on plastic disposable bags has seen many nations and cities across the globe take action.  It may come as a surprise that Bangladesh banned plastic bags outright a decade ago, exacting a dramatic spike in sales of reusable bags.  In 2008, China followed in suit, which saw the elimination of some 40 billion bags in the first year alone, saving the energy equivalent of 11.7 million barrels of oil.   Australia’s Northern Territory no longer offers plastic bags to its shoppers, who are now faced with the choice to either bring their own bags, or pay for re-usable or biodegradable bags at the checkout.  This year, Italy became the first European country to issue a nationwide ban, paving the way for other countries like England and Scotland, who are now considering anti-plastic legislation.  And while shoppers in Wales are currently paying a minimum of 5p per bag, Ireland has also recently instituted a 15-cent tax on plastic bags in an attempt to end the “litter menace,” a move that reduced usage by 90 percent in the first three months and raised 3.5 million euros towards environmental projects.  Washington, D.C., also took the up initiative, imposing a 5-cent fee per bag, cutting monthly use from 22.5 million bags to just 3 million.  Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an expansion of the city’s celebrated restriction on plastic shopping bags in major super markets and pharmacies to all retailers citywide. Whole Foods Market, ranked among the most socially responsible businesses and placed third on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of Top 25 Green Power Partners, no longer offers plastic bags to customers, a reflection, it says, of the company’s core values of caring for public and the environmental health and safety.  In like fashion, all Ikea stores in the United States and the United Kingdom no longer use plastic carrier bags in an effort to promote the use of their own brand of reusable bags from which they have donated over $300,000 to American Forests.  The list of plastic bag banning goes on, from small towns like Modbury, England to the populated streets of Delhi and throughout the Indian province of Himachal Pradesh, (where plastic bag use can result in hefty fines and even jail time) the move to reduce, reuse and recycle has undeniably become a global trend.

While the issue might seem black and white, it is not however a simple question of paper or plastic, it’s a question of what we can reduce and eliminate today in order to enjoy more tomorrow.  The first step is to eliminate one of the major polluting causal factors and inhibitors: plastic bags.  By drastically reducing or eliminating completely our dependence on plastics we will not only help our environment and ourselves, but we would open the floodgates for a greater ecological mindfulness and consideration to flow through.  If whole developing and developed nations worldwide have collectively banned outright the use of disposable plastic bags, such as China, Italy, South Africa, Australia, India, Philippines, Uganda, Kenya, Bhutan, and so on, whilst many others have introduced a plastic bag tax, why hasn’t Canada taken the initiative to follow in these footsteps?   Considering we belong to the second largest country (landmass) in the world, with some of the most extensive natural landscapes and resources, it seems only commonsense that we should naturally be at the forefront of this anti-plastic campaign.

Although dependence on plastic should not be entirely replaced by a renewed necessity of the paper bag, (paper, as we all know, is made from trees, and it takes millions upon millions to sustain our yearly supply) the elimination of the plastic bag, should rather impress upon us the reuse and recycle philosophy.  If taking point means keeping up with global trends, then what’s in vogue is not paper or plastic, or virgin materials, it is vintage, it is salvage and it is environmental.  Reused boxes, cloth or canvas bags have created a new wave of trendy shoppers who embrace a wholesale approach to ecological sustainability.  In like fashion with the growing trends of organic food, natural products, farmers and flea markets, second-hand boutiques, and all things local, reusing bags at the supermarket is simply an extension of this popular green ethos.   So when we are asked, “paper or plastic?” at the checkout counter, without wanting to be an environmental cretin and in full understanding of the true issues, we are no longer caught between a rock and a hard place.  We know, as the consumer, as the voter, as the revolutionary, what we need to do in order to get things done. Let’s make the choice to reuse and recycle, to refuse plastic and put forward to the City of Penticton today the move to ban plastic bags within our municipality.  Change takes cause at the grassroots with towns like Penticton, who have the capacity and the power to ban plastic bags citywide, and lead by example for the rest of the country.  If China, with a population of 1.3 billion can do it, so can we.

-Elizabeth Cucnik






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