It’s in the Bag

The film American Beauty featured a plastic bag
poetically swirling on an eddy of air and went on to win five
Academy Awards. Even so, I still can’t think of those bags as
beautiful. But just as a pathologist can admire the structure of a
particularly virulent and contagious virus, I must admit that I
feel a strange attraction to them.

According to a 1997 study, 58 percent of Americans prefer paper
bags to plastic ones; yet a 1996 report by the Film and Bag
Federation found that four out of five grocery bags we actually use
are plastic. How to explain the discrepancy? Supermarkets have made
it difficult to choose anything but plastic.

Stores have a financial interest in keeping their checkout lines
moving smoothly, and having more than one option at the end of the
line slows things down. A spokesman for Ralph’s, one of
California’s large supermarket chains, would not admit to any
company bias other than ‘customer choice,’ but a checker I spoke
with at one of their stores told me that employees were explicitly
instructed to use plastic if the customer expressed no preference.
As you might expect, the issue is cost. Plastic bags cost about
four cents each, while the average paper bag costs twice that
amount. Paper bags hold between two and three times as much as
plastic ones, but when all the numbers are crunched, supermarkets
still save by pushing plastic — especially when you factor in all
those ‘single-bag’ orders in which a customer’s entire purchase
fits into a single sack.

Nothing epitomizes the mindless profligacy of our consumer
culture like these cheap, flimsy, yet depressingly indestructible
little bags that get caught up in our trees, litter our streets,
and wash up on our beaches. Americans throw away 100 billion
polyethylene bags a year. The bags choke thousands of marine
animals annually; the inks used to print all those smiley faces
break down in landfills and create a toxic seep. Though plastic
bags take up less than 4 percent of all landfill space, estimates
on how long they take to decompose range from 100 to 1,000

Which is why this homely bag has finally entered the
international political spotlight. Taiwan last year banned the free
distribution of plastic bags in supermarkets and other stores.
Bangla-desh began enforcing its own ban after discovering that
discarded bags were clogging drainage and sewage lines, which
increased flooding and the incidence of waterborne diseases. In
South Africa, flimsy plastic bags dominated so much of the
country’s landscape that South Africans began to call them their
‘national flower.’ Today that country’s government prohibits all
plastic bags under 30 microns thick (typical grocery bags are 18
microns) in the hope that customers will reuse the sturdier

The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand are all
considering imposing a tax on plastic bags similar to the one
Ireland instituted in March 2002. The 17-cent-per-bag tax has
reduced bag use by 90 percent. Grocery stores complained about
having to collect the tax, which requires them to ring up bags as
additional purchases. But as a spokesman for an Irish supermarket
chain explained to the London Independent, ‘Eventually,
most people said Yes, it’s the right thing to do. We just needed to
be pushed into it.’

Excerpted from OnEarth (Summer 2003), an
environmental magazine that keeps one eye on the nation’s natural
treasures and the other on certain lawmakers with a kleptomaniac’s
compulsion to loot them. Recent issues have featured stories on
big-picture issues like energy policy and ocean life off Maine,
plus reviews and profiles. Founded as The Amicus Journal in 1979
and renamed in 2001,
OnEarth is published quarterly by the
Natural Resources Defense Council
( Subscriptions:
$15/yr. (4 issues) including NRDC membership from 40 W. 20th St.,
New York, NY 10011.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.