When my fellow Fish opinionator Tom Davies looks out at his backyard, he sees bald eagles, turkey vultures and courting bunnies. When I look out at ours, I see … plastic sacks.
Yes, empty sacks — caught up near the tippy tops of the crabapple tree beside the deck and the maple in the corner. From ground level, one appears to be a Walmart bag; the other, from Hornbacher’s. They’re snagged on distant branches by their handles, snapping and crackling merrily whenever the wind comes up. They’re far too high with your feet on the ground, and we’re far too old to climb after them. Our only hope of relief is a prairie gust fierce enough to tear their flimsy plastic free. Then what? They’ll sail away, only to land in your own yard … or maybe the park where Judge Davies watches his wildlife.
Ophaned plastic sacks show up everywhere at this time of year. They bloom — white, yellow, pink, blue, beige -— from leafless bushes. They flatten themselves on chain-link fences around apartments and parking lots and playing fields and parkways. They weave in among the weeds in ditches and clutter the brush in country windbreaks. As light and flighty as hummingbirds, they waft their way into every urban and rural landscape, from perching on rooftops to clogging culverts.
And they’re almost literally immortal. Each single-use plastic bag is said to have an average useful life of just 12 minutes — from store to car, then car to cupboard. Once you’ve dragged whatever you’ve purchased into the house, you’re bound to eventually use it up or wear it out or jam it into the back of the closet or pass it on as rummage … but the sacks in which the clerk packed them are going to outlive them by an eon — lingering as a thousand-year blemish caught somewhere in Mother Nature’s hair.
While not quite as big a sore spot as gamma rays from Fukushima or an exploding oil pipeline, those flimsy containers are an especially irritating blot on our eternal landscape. When they first stormed into the world of retail in 1977, merchants recognized their advantages — feather-light yet strong, easy to tote and — best of all — only a fraction of a cent each, compared to 4 or 5 cents for paper. Along with the classic ding of the cash register, another universal note merged into the familiar soundtrack of the check-out lane: “Paper or plastic?”
Have you noticed how that’s evolved since the 1980s and 1990s? “Paper or plastic” has morphed into “is plastic OK?” — or no choice at all. Plastic now occupies at least 80 percent of the bagging market. Fifteen years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags were consumed every year around the world, 80 percent of them in North America.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, the average American family now takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year. So what do you do with yours? At the House of Hanson, we warehouse them in a bathroom cupboard, then attempt to reuse them in random ways. We line trash cans, gather noxious kitchen leavings and collect the World’s Greatest Granddaughter’s diapers for the garbage. We pack snacks and fold up donations for charity resale shops. At the height of garden season, we squeeze them full of zucchinis and abandon them in neighbors’ unlocked cars. Best of all, the orange sleeves in which our morning newspaper arrives are precisely the right shape and size for picking up doo when marching the dog down the sidewalk.
We’ve also made a habit of filling them with whatever we plan to recycle — newspapers, cans, plastic bottles. Little did we know until now that our tidiness is a recipe for disaster. For — irony of ironies — those thin plastic bags gum up the works at recycling plants. Yes, they can be recycled … but only separately in identified bins. When you fill them with cans and bottles, tie a neat top knot and toss them into regular recycling bins, they’ll eventually wind themselves into the recycler’s mechanical hardware and bring the machine to a halt.
After years of hearing, “Give a hoot — don’t pollute,” it’s easy to damn careless litterbugs for the baggies blowing in the wind. But careless tossing out the car window accounts for only part of the problem. When plastic-bag-encased garbage arrives at the landfill, no matter how faithfully it’s been collected, the load is sure to be shoved about with heavy equipment, buried beneath layers of dirt and repeatedly squashed down by earthmovers. The bags may be entombed at first, intact or shredded, but that’s never the end of them. They have a nasty way of working themselves to the top and escaping what’s intended to be their grave.
The solution? Not clear. California led the way in banning them last November, but enforcement is a perplexing issue. At any rate, “ban” is a four-letter word in many quarters. (Well, three, to be precise, but you know what I mean.) Nor is a retreat back to paper necessarily the best environmental choice. Timber may be renewable, unlike petroleum that’s used to manufacture plastic, but the whole paper-making process, from lumberjack to paper mill to delivery to the loading dock, may actually gobble more energy and resources than entire one-use bagging cycle.
Nor will our much-anticipated single-source recycling eliminate the problem. Come July, when Moorhead and Fargo residents begin to toss all their recyclables into their new blue bins, those store sacks are one variety of trash that’s specifically verboten.
For now, two alternatives seem to make the most sense. We can sidestep the whole dilemma by bringing our own durable, reusable bags to the store. Toward this end, Russ and I have stockpiled colorful fabric totes in the back seats of both cars. So far, however, we have learned this method works best when you remember to bring them inside with you — a step we haven’t quite mastered.
Or go the other route — far simpler for the attention-challenged. Collect bags from your last trip and return them on your next visit. Yes, there are bins toward the front of most every supermarket and big-box store. You just haven’t noticed them until now.
There, nestled among their own kind, the annoying yet useful bags can live happily ever after. This is not a euphemism. Collected separately and remanufactured, they’re destined for reincarnation as — you guessed it! — more plastic bags. Forever and ever, amen.