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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “Paper or plastic? No, thanks!”

    Jeremiah Simmonscolumnist
    Jeremiah Simmons

    Paper or plastic? Walk into any grocery store and this is the inevitable question waiting for us after scouring the aisles for Easy Mac, Stove Top, muffin tins or lube. Once we get home, some of us throw the plastic bags away, pick up dog poo with them or line our trash bins with them. Have you ever thought about not using a plastic bag at all? I don’t mean carrying your goods in your arms, but simply refusing to use a plastic bag altogether and instead using a canvas or mesh bag. According to Good magazine’s July/August edition, Americans use 60,000 plastic bags every five seconds.

    With such hurried and hectic lives, we barely even remember to take our birth-control pills and feed our pets, much less remember to bring a reusable grocery bag with us as we bustle through our daily lives. Even the most environmentally conscious shoppers can fall short of remembering to bring their reusable shopping bags with them to their usual retail stores. We can’t always remember, but here’s what the numbers look like when we forget.

    Of more than 100 billion plastic bags used annually, mostly for a single use, the majority end up in landfills where they can take up to 1,000 years to degrade. The bags that don’t make it into the landfills end up in trees, clinging to fences, lying in vacant lots or suffocating animals. Granted, I would have liked to suffocate the damn pigeon that shat on me the other day, but I would have been misusing the bag.

    Do you remember the “”American Beauty”” scene of the plastic grocery bag swirling in the wind? Ricky Fitts is tearfully watching the recorded scene with Jane Burnham when he says, “”It’s like God’s looking right at you, just for a second, and if you’re careful … you can look right back.”” Jane asks what he sees, and he says, “”Beauty.”” While finding beauty in the unexpected is great, the swirling plastic bag illustrates an important flaw in our consumer-driven society: waste.

    People who believe in a free-market society also tend to believe that social and environmental problems should be solved by market solutions. According to Tony Iltis from the Green Left Weekly, “”(T)he ‘solutions’ being promoted by the establishment define what is realistic for capitalism, so the ‘need’ for big business to remain profitable sets the parameters of what is ‘possible.’ “” It is true that profits can be made while saving the environment (corporate responsibility), but environmental justice should supercede profitability. Banning plastic bags altogether would be wonderful. That is exactly what Ross Mirkarimi, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, is trying to do. As the co-founder of California’s Green Party, he believes that “”plastic prohibition will save 450,000 gallons of oil and prevent 1,400 tons of trash from ending up in landfills annually.””

    Though the numbers

    With such hurried and hectic lives, we barely even remember to take our birth-control pills and feed our pets, much less remember to bring a reusable grocery bag with us as we bustle through our daily lives.

    are staggering, it is still hard to imagine what we use when we can’t see what 60,000 plastic bags look like. Fortunately for us, photographer Chris Jordan has made it easy to see how much we actually consume in his stunning new series titled “”Running the Numbers.”” We all know that seeing is believing, and he proves his point by visually displaying our collective consumption that will hopefully “”enable us to make more conscious choices about the behaviors that lead to them.””

    We all need that one decisive experience before we start making changes in our lives. On a recent trip to Copenhagen for a health economics conference, my colleague and I decided to do a bit of shopping. We stopped by a grocery store for some delicious snacks and then landed at the register to torture the cashier with my poor Danish. She scanned the items while we expected a bagger to consolidate our items into a plastic bag. Being American, I was accustomed to being asked, “”Paper or Plastic?”” Interestingly enough, we had to pay extra for bags. Not only was it more expensive just being in Denmark, but also having to pay an extra two dollars for a cheap plastic bag just didn’t seem worth it. Cheap may be chic in America, but not in other environmentally progressive countries.

    Moral of the story: Anything free really has a cost. If we don’t share in the cost of producing and disposing of plastic grocery bags, then we will easily take more than we need and care less about how we dispose of them. Policymakers would be remiss to believe that market mechanisms can solve environmental problems. Tony Iltis supports this claim when he states that “”market mechanisms create a situation whereby solutions to one environmental problem can exacerbate others.”” Banning is the ideal solution. Convincing city legislators to enforce the use of biodegradable alternatives at larger supermarkets is more practical. Believing that we have a personal choice in this matter is a must.

    Jeremiah Simmons is a second-year graduate student in the College of Public Health. He can be reached at

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