Letting the endangered cat out of the plastic bag

Post by Martin C. Winer in


Reusable plastic bags save nothing but our conscience, argues Martin Winer

CityCaucus.com welcomes guest editorialist Martin Winer and his following commentary on plastic bag levies. Contact CityCaucus@gmail.com if you wish to submit a guest editorial.

“Would you like any bags sir?” the obnoxiously gum chewing, Lululemon athletic apparel bedecked cashier asked. “Yes, I’ll have two please.” She frowned disapprovingly through her gum chewing as to suggest “why don’t you just choke a pacific albatross to death? It’s faster.” If I subscribed to the latest internet fads, Facebook and Twitter (which I don’t) I’d know that this season, Lululemon is hot, and plastic bags are not. The cashier mercilessly tacked on a 10 cent levy to my bill for my environmental trespass, tossed aside my bags -- me along with them -- and addressed her next customer: a Lululemon toting trendy mother of 2.2 children.

“And how many bags would you like?” The woman straightened herself up with perfect yoga posture and proudly announced “none” as she passed her box of bottled water and juice boxes through the scanner. She placed down her cardboard Starbucks coffee cup with the added cardboard insulator to ensure she didn’t burn her well manicured hands in order to pay the bill. She produced a ‘tap-able’ credit card which didn’t require a signature, just a quick tap and she was on her way. Her, up until recently well behaved, children were starting to act up as they had finished their Styrofoam containers of McDonalds’ McChicken bits. She tore into the plastic rapping holding the juice boxes together, freed the plastic straws from their plastic wrappers and gave her children some more carbohydrates to keep them calm.

She was so cool, so chic. She could have her coffee, feed her children, do her shopping and pay for it all in the blink of an eye, all while sparing the environment. ‘Clearly’ she had me outclassed by miles of greenspace. She asked the cashier to dispose of all the resulting rubbish which she gladly did. After all, none of it contained plastic bags, and they both wore Lululemon.

They were on the same wavelength, though the wave appeared to ripple through a relatively shallow pool. The woman then proceeded past me as I finished bagging my groceries and loaded her entire kit and caboodle into an SUV. She sped away, emitting a waft of carbon footprint behind her leaving me wondering how my two little plastic bags had become the green crime of the century?

Yesteryear social critic H. L. Mencken once famously wrote that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” It would appear that the recent push to eliminate plastic bags may be a victim of such simple minded thinking. As I unloaded my groceries, I took note of what was actually generating the waste. Tomatoes now came in plastic containers instead of their former loose packing. Cereal mystifyingly still came with a cardboard box around a plastic bag. Why can’t cereal come in plastic bags like chips? As I revisited the mother’s groceries, I thought of the juice boxes: As a child I used to bring a reusable thermos to school.

Recalling the bottled water, I remembered a day when we were all content to use the then marvel of technology, the tap and water fountain. Finally with respect to all the food containers, on the odd occasion the family would go out to a restaurant, we sat down and ate on plates and my parents drank their coffee out of a porcelain mug. As I thought about changes in lifestyle that had occurred over the years, I wondered if the drive to reduce plastic bags served to save only one animal: a scapegoat. I was further concerned that if in giving ourselves an unwarranted gold star for environmental thinking if Mother Nature was left holding the bag as a result of our easy pacification.

It did not seem reasonable to me that plastic bags were the environmental pariahs they were being made out to be. It seemed that many windbags in local governments were rallying behind the recycled banner of environmentalism, green with envy of the fame it had brought others. It only took a tiny pin prick of research to deflate the hot air politicians had bagged and floated our way.

An Australian study confirms what most of us already know from daily life: plastic bags are largely reused. They become waste bin liners, pet waste bags, or storage bags. The study goes on to state than in Ireland where a levy on plastic bags was introduced, the sale of plastic kitchen tidy bags soared by 77%. So environmentally speaking, the efficacy of levying plastic bags is like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul; the net effect on the amount of plastic bags in circulation is near zero.

I apologize for letting the endangered cat out of the bag, but the only good canvas bags are doing is to let us bury our heads in the compost and ignore the real environmental problems that continue to plague us.

It may surprise some to know that I consider myself an environmentalist. I am however a pragmatic one who realizes that our natural resources and human motivation are both finite resources which must be spent wisely. I fear that in pushing people to abandon plastic bags environmentalists fritter away some of the precious human motivation to make more necessary changes. Environmentalists must choose to focus on the issues which when changed will yield the greatest impact.

A counter example can be found on WWF’s website which suggests that instead of using a plastic bag for pet waste, one should hollow out a juice container and use it as a scoop, then flush the waste down the toilet when you return home. These are examples of things which ‘sound good at the meetings’ but people will never follow or do.

Imagine, you have just started taking your pet out for a long walk and your pet issues forth a runny present for you. You bend down to scoop up this delight and must now carry the smelly mess upright in a container for the rest of the walk. This has as much chance of flying in practice as the supposed contents of the homemade scoop. Efforts such as this deserve an ‘A’ for effort but will be more bothersome to people than useful. 

I can hear other environmentalists screaming and stomping their feet asking if I know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is chock full of plastic refuse and is twice the size of Texas? I am indeed aware of it and concerned. The plastic waste there however, consists of much more than just plastic bags and the problem is how did plastic waste destined for landfill manage to make it into the ocean? Limiting (or levying) the supply of plastic grocery bags will only cause people to have to buy kitchen bags and the like.

The correct solution is in educating people about the negative impact of littering and excess packaging, then lobbying industry and government to aid in reducing both. A prime candidate for such an education is the videographer in “American Beauty” who watched a swirling bag in the wind for fifteen minutes and found God. “Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it…” he said of the bag.

This gentleman is in dire need of an education such that when he next sees a swirling bag for 15 minutes, he best pick it up before it makes it into the ocean for he is not watching an “American Beauty” but instead an environmental “Apocalypse Now.”


Today, the beer store charged me $0.05 for a bag. Argggggggg!

Excellent points Martin.

I love the "a" for effort on the doggie scoop idea. I had to laugh a little at the notion of its chance of flying being about as good as that of the contents of the scoop. : )

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