Saturday, August 21, 2010

Plastics!







A TV ad from the mid-1960s is stamped in my memory bank. A woman peeks coyly around the shower curtain and asks her husband for the shampoo. "Here," he says, throwing the bottle at her head, and as it ricochets around the tub, she exclaims: "Hey! It didn't break!" This was the dawning of a new era in plastics and sub-lethal marital violence.

It sticks in my head because it marks the time before which we managed to muddle through life without plastic. It's almost inconceivable now. Plastic, a petroleum product, is ubiquitous and an object lesson in ecology, or the interconnectedness of things. Everything affects everything else. A plastic butterfly barrette snapping open in Omaha leads to a gyre of submerged garbage swirling around in the Pacific. The stuff never goes away, but it does bust up into pieces so small ("nurdles") they are now being ingested by plankton. We don't know just what that will mean for the food chain, but odds are we're not going to like it.

Here in Portland, our mayor, Sam Adams, is looking to ban single-use plastic bags from stores. Some people are incensed. "He's just trying to look green," says one, and that's a valid worry. It sets a nasty precedent. What if the President pulled out of Afghanistan just to look peaceful? What if Sarah Palin corked her cakehole just to look intelligent? Where would we be then?

Other dissenters point out that the plastic bags have handles and are much easier to carry, especially for the disabled and elderly. Perhaps we are being a little too hasty in abandoning our present system before we have developed the technology to make reusable cloth bags with handles.

But the most compelling case of all in favor of plastic bags is their reuse in the field of dog poop removal. My friend Margie not only bags up the voluminous output of two Labrador retrievers every day on her walks but then carries it in her coat pockets. "It keeps my hands warm," she explains, another consequence unforeseen by me. I had to think back. What did we do before we scooped dog poop into plastic bags?

We didn't scoop dog poop into anything. Our dog pooped in the neighbor's yard and their dog pooped in ours. Kids revved up their immune systems by rolling around in quantities of it, and everybody watched their step. It's not feasible in the cell phone age.

So what's it going to be, people? Dog poop, or plastic inhalers for the kids? Cold hands, or a continent-sized wad of garbage in a part of the ocean nobody ever visits anyway? The planet, or Lunchables? Give it another few decades of thought, and be strong. We'll never know if we can live without plankton until we give it a shot.

34 comments:

  1. Free plastic bags were banned in shops here (Ireland) a few years ago - we wondered how we could survive! So we all use cloth bags now or pay 20 cent for a plastic if we'd really really like one. As a child I recall trees decorated with white plastic bags all year round, and there was always one blowing in the breeze down the road - What an eco friendly way to warm your hands!

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  2. Yes, plastic has become ubiquitous, hasn't it? I use a cloth bag I carry in my purse, and it's made it possible not to use single-use plastic bags, but I notice that my vitamins comes in plastic bags, my deli food, etc. etc., and I wonder how I can get free of the environmental price tag. Great post, Murr, I think you are brilliant. Glad I found you.

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  3. plastic bags are a total blight on the earth. why are they always hanging from trees and telephone wires?? perhaps the naysayers have a good use for that as well. austin is also considering banning them. thankfully, i see a lot of people using their own reuseable bags these days.

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  4. I especially love the Sarah Palin reference. One lives in hope!

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  5. "A plastic butterfly barrette snapping open in Omaha leads to a gyre of submerged garbage swirling around in the Pacific." The new Butterfly Effect. I love it.

    And if you aren't already acquainted with Kathy Frederick's vigil of her friend "Windy," a plastic bag that's been hanging on a tree outside her office window for over a year now, I highly recommend you drop in to The Junk Drawer and have a look.

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  6. I heard about the charge for plastic bags in Ireland... and that it resulted in MORE plastic garbage bags being supplied to retailers. Is this true? We reuse our plastic grocery bags as trash bags.

    I have two cloth grocery bags which I keep in my car... and which I forget and remain in my car as I purchase my groceries and the get packed into plastic bags. Memory loss is, uh well I was going to say something...

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  7. I get so confused trying to be green. Plastic is the devil, or so I've heard but it is virtually impossible to ban it from our homes and lives. I only use fabric bags for shopping and since everything comes packaged with some sort of plastic bag, I use those for dog poop.

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  8. I, too, heard that after Ireland banned the plastic shopping bags, purchases of plastic garbage bags went up (previously, people were using the "free" ones for their wastebaskets).

    All plastic should be banned, aside from medical uses. There! Problem solved. If only I ran the world...

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  9. Murr, this was superb. I use cloth bags for groceries. They charge for plastic ones up in Canuckistan now. I use compostable ones for the cat litter and yeah, I have to buy these. And yeah, they go in a plastic bag to the dump, so what's the point? I'm trying to find biodegradable garbage bags so I won't feel like such a hypocrite.

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  10. Plastic bags caught in the ocean gyres make me think of leatherback sea turtles, who mistake the diaphonous floaters for their favorite food, jellyfish. The oops response may try to cough the bags back out, but their gullets have down-pointing spiny growths that keep jellyfish from escape--and sadly, the plastic bags as well.

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  11. I bought two cloth bags to use for grocery shopping. As we others, most of the time I forget to take them when I shop. I have no problem with doing away with plastic bags....although we would need to reevaluate out means of poop scooping. I actually cursed when plastic replaced paper bags...I thought the plastic was too damn small and it just meant more stuff to carry. I've always preferred paper.

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  12. Back when I worked for the youth program Roots & Shoots, we started a "reusable bag campaign." They still have some info on their website, aimed at kids, teachers, parents, etc: www.rootsandshoots.org/campaigns/reusablebag. One of our project ideas was "write a letter to Tanzanian president Kikwete, thanking him for banning plastic bags in his country." I'd forgotten that policy was passed; it really was needed, as I remember many roadsides in TZ were coated in blue colored plastic bags. Funny how the bags color the landscape. Here in the US, you can maybe find your way to the nearest Target by following the trail of bags with red circles on them, or Safeway by their beige bags. When you do have colorful bags, you can crochet more durable bags out of them, here's an example: http://river2sea72.wordpress.com/2007/03/27/crocheted-plastic-bag-evening-bag/. Incredible conversation starter!

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  13. I was amazed and disturbed when I heard China had banned plastic bags. I thought they were a third world country and we would set the example for them. There have to bring as many bags as you plan to fillas paper bags aren'tan option.

    I'm willing to bring my own bags and find them easier to carry as the handles are long enough to carry the heaviest bags on my shoulders.

    Now if I could only remember to get them to the store.

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  14. I've been buying cloth bags for shopping for years, and forgetting them 90% of the time. So sometimes I'd buy a new one for that day... well, FINALLY I have enough for a huge food shopping trip and I learned that if I put them back in the car (or at least by the front door) after unpacking the food, I will have them with me for the next time! Amazing how that works.

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  15. The People's Republic of San Francisco banned plastic bags ages ago and is now on the verge of having stores charge for paper ones. The grocers all sell voluminous, colorful nylon bags that can be rolled up into a self-containing unit no larger than a cell phone. No more excuses.

    For the time being, six packs can still be carried home in trash can liners. And, as for poop, that's why the NY Times comes in those lovely blue plastic sleeves.

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  16. Oh my, Margie. Please say it ain't so?

    I don't remember what we did with the poop in the 60's... I do remember being very careful stepping around the yard and rinsing our tennis shoes regularly. Ugh.

    I have about 7 or 8 green cloth bags in the back seat of my car. I remember to use them once out of twenty visits to the grocery store. Brain overload, ya know. And, I used Prell in the plastic bottle, Murr.

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  17. As I read this I kept thinking of that great scene from "The Graduate" where some guy is talking to Hoffman about his future and he says "Plastics." You make some very good points here. I use my plastic bags to scoop the dirty cat litter into. The rest I recycle. But I try to remember to take my cloth bags with me. Like the previous commenter, mine make it about as far as the car most of the time. But now I'm duly shamed and I'm going to try hard. I really am. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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  18. I'm going to remember that dog poop in the baggie in the pockets trick for the dead of winter. Thanks for the tip, Murr! You are completely invaluable!

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  19. Well don't take me as an example. We have two big nylon bags and three cloth bags (including the NEST IN PEACE super cloth bag that MAKES A GREAT GIFT and the profits from which go to help Debby Kaspari), and it's simply amazing how much plastic-wrapped crap you can buy at the store and put in them.

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  20. I'm afraid that the daily scooping of cat poop into one of those nice Nest In Peace cloth bags could turn out to be pretty darn expensive -- and I'm pretty sure my high efficiency washer doesn't have a "De-poopify" setting. I mean, I like Debby Kaspari and all, but a girl's gotta draw the line somewhere.

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  21. Plastic can also be derived from plants, like soy beans (no surprise there) and peanuts. I think there are some issues with durability, but maybe that's a good thing.

    You are correct though that the majority of plastics we use today are derived from petroleum.

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  22. Old news here on the East Coast! We are now charged for plastic bags here, inside The Beltway. The Anacostia River was becoming bagatized. I try to remember to bring my handled grocery bags that I bought at Wegmans for 99 cents each. I believe that Trader Joe's sells biodegradable trash bags. Greenishly yours, Elaine

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  23. Oh it's so complicated. If the biodegradable bags go in the landfill, they don't degrade either. I guess we just line up our bags o' stuff in the yard until the bags decompose, and then there's just the stuff...wait a minute...

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  24. weelll...tempted to say holy shit here...oops...just did. We here in the Ottawa Valley are charged $0.05 per bag for every bag..so pavlovian reinforcement has pretty much worked. Charge for bag? ding ding. Bring a cloth bag. Save $. I have a gazillion bags in lots of locations, hopefully so I can remember. If not, I pay the $.30 cents or so and have new garbage bags for a few days. In the meantime, I think about this..http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/oceans/pollution/trash-vortex/.

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  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  26. "They keep my hands warm." You made me laugh out loud. Glad I found your blog.

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  27. Our provincial government is now taxing plastic bags, so more of us are carrying cloth bags (with handles) around. If it's just a few items, we often don't bag at all.

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  28. weelll...tempted to say holy shit here...oops...just did. We here in the Ottawa Valley are charged $0.05 per bag for every bag..so pavlovian reinforcement has pretty much worked. Charge for bag? ding ding. Bring a cloth bag. Save $. I have a gazillion bags in lots of locations, hopefully so I can remember. If not, I pay the $.30 cents or so and have new garbage bags for a few days. In the meantime, I think about this..http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/oceans/pollution/trash-vortex/.

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  29. Plastic can also be derived from plants, like soy beans (no surprise there) and peanuts. I think there are some issues with durability, but maybe that's a good thing.

    You are correct though that the majority of plastics we use today are derived from petroleum.

    ReplyDelete
  30. As I read this I kept thinking of that great scene from "The Graduate" where some guy is talking to Hoffman about his future and he says "Plastics." You make some very good points here. I use my plastic bags to scoop the dirty cat litter into. The rest I recycle. But I try to remember to take my cloth bags with me. Like the previous commenter, mine make it about as far as the car most of the time. But now I'm duly shamed and I'm going to try hard. I really am. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    ReplyDelete
  31. plastic bags are a total blight on the earth. why are they always hanging from trees and telephone wires?? perhaps the naysayers have a good use for that as well. austin is also considering banning them. thankfully, i see a lot of people using their own reuseable bags these days.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Free plastic bags were banned in shops here (Ireland) a few years ago - we wondered how we could survive! So we all use cloth bags now or pay 20 cent for a plastic if we'd really really like one. As a child I recall trees decorated with white plastic bags all year round, and there was always one blowing in the breeze down the road - What an eco friendly way to warm your hands!

    ReplyDelete