In the wake of similar local initiatives across the country, New Yorkers are mulling the merits of a tax — or outright ban — on plastic shopping bags. These flimsy, forgettable little sacks represent a considerable portion of litter and collected waste. Besides environmental degradation, they wreak economic havoc by clogging drainage systems and littering railways. The thinking is that through a ban or tax, especially in a city as big and important as New York, a significant portion of these plastic pathogens can be removed from the trash cycle.
Reasonable enough assumption. Noble intent. Yet considering the scale of the problem, it would seem to be a rather trivial response, like trying to cure relentless diarrhea by avoiding restaurants without an “A” health rating. It’s probably a good idea, but unlikely to lead to a definitive solution. Further, it is worth considering that this initiative might distract from more worthwhile environmental legislation. I won’t argue that the elimination represents a positive step for the cause of environmental protection, but how significant of a step is it? Are there better alternatives?
I am of the opinion that addressing this epic problem requires not only economic and political effort, but also a radical shift in culture. Plastic bags may be a glaring example of unnecessary trash and an easy target for criticism, but they are just a sliver of the pie.
We have become a society dedicated to cheap, portable, one-time use. Before the Second World War and the unprecedented industrialization that followed, most consumer goods were meant to be used for a considerable length of time and sold without plastic packaging. Food was served on reusable dishes or packaged in burlap and paper sacks. Now, nearly every product is packaged (usually excessively) with some kind of plastic and created with planned obsolescence in mind.
From the narrow economic and social perspective of the average consumer, these purchase patterns are as logical as they are destructive. Cheap and disposable trumps expensive and durable for the individual in almost every circumstance. Convenience is also essential in an era where work and pleasure are pursued in the extreme, and when getting to work on time can mean the difference between having a roof over your head or not.
If we ever hope to deal with the cancerous mountains of garbage metastasizing all over our planet, we need to accept the source of the problem — mindless consumption. Everything we buy is eventually thrown away and replaced. Since much of what we buy is made from plastic or packaged with it, these things litter the earth long after we’re done with them. We can and probably should get rid of the odious and ubiquitous plastic bags. But, if we ever hope to seriously address the problems our trash creates, we need to take a long hard look at what we put inside them.