Should we ban plastic bags? Even green ones?The other day I was talking with someone who was complaining about the recent ban on single-use plastic bags at local stores here in Portland.

His complaint? That we shouldn’t ban plastic bags, because reusable bags are a health risk.

Seriously.

I was intrigued. What possible risk could outweigh the the damage that single-use bags do to the environment, not to mention what happened to property values when the streets are full of plastic tumbleweed.

So I did what I do best.

I looked it up.

As it turns out, yes, there is a tiny risk of bacterial contaminationif you carry meat in one, and if the package leaks, and if you don’t consequently wash the bag, then you might end up putting produce in contact with week-old meat juice that’s begun growing some nasty little microbes.

Did this come from your plastic bag?

e.coli: The “e” is for “eww…”

You know what else is a health risk, in that case? Dirty dishes. Seriously folks, did you know you have to wash reusable dishes? So it must be a better, safer alternative to just use disposable plates and utensils.

Right?

OK sarcasm aside, this seems like a pretty easy risk to mitigate, to me. If you buy meat, pay attention. And everyone could benefit from washing their bags periodically. (Interesting side note: If you’re concerned about improving your environmental footprint, you’re probably eating less meat, or none at all.)

Does washing your bags use water, energy, and soap? Sure. But producing new plastic bags uses water, energy, and chemicals, too. And so does recycling those single-use bags, by the way. And who said you have to wash your bags separately? Just throw them in with the towels when you’re already doing the laundry. One or two bags in a load of laundry is a negligible difference in resource use.

 

Other issues?

In my search for the downsides of reusable bags, I ran across a few other critiques that bear follow-up:

Resource use

I found some sites that claimed that you have to use a typical reusable bag between 3 and 131 times (depending on the reusable bag’s material) before it balances out the resources that it takes to get the equivalent usefulness from disposable plastic bags. The cotton bags took 131 uses. The recycled polypropylene only took 11.

The response to this is straightforward: Re-use your reusable bags. If you shop once a week, then you use your bags 52 times a year. Two and half years later, with a cotton bag,you’re good to go. That’s not even accounting for the fact that many stores insist on double bagging most things.

I have reusable bags that are well over 8 years old, and they’re the recycled polypropylene kind. I think it’s safe to say that resource use is only an issue if you keep forgetting your bags and buying new ones.

Toxic ingredients

Some bags have apparently been found to contain lead and other toxins. Cotton, if not organic, is grown with tons of pesticide. Literally. It’s the same for some other natural fibers, as well. So yeah, you’ve got to be careful about that.

It’s complicated

The issue of shopping bags, like most important issues, is complicated. And “it’s complicated” is not an headline that gets readers. Your news sources–every single one of them, including non-profit sources–have a vested interest in getting people to read their material. And so big deals are made of certain things, while others are swept under the rug. We all need to be sure that we’re thinking critically, and exploring the viewpoints that seem to oppose our own.

Take a moment to find a relatively fair look at the pros and cons of all options. I found this one in less than 60 seconds on Google.

You can only expect yourself to do the best you can with what you’ve got. Sometimes what you’ve it’s a fantastic option. Sometimes it’s the lesser of two evils, and you make do until you can figure out something better. Sometimes it takes thinking outside of the box, and avoiding both of those two evils. Have you ever considered how to avoid using shopping bags at all? It’s possible.

Ain’t no such thing as “trash”

And the thing to remember in all situations, the thing that it really comes down to, is that there is no such thing as trash, in nature. You can’t “throw something away.” At least, not in any permanent kind of way. Everything’s output is something else’s input. Except that we place some things on indefinite hold.

Joey's parents had no idea what was in store for them when they went to replace his bed...

Joey’s parents had no idea what was in store for them when they went to replace his bed…

Think of it this way. Say you carried meat home in a disposable plastic bag, and it leaked. You wouldn’t have to wash that bag, it’s true. Instead, you’d throw it away. (You know you’re not supposed to recycle dirty plastic bags, right? And if you are washing it… why not just wash the reusable ones?)

What does that really mean: “throw it away.” It means you think it’s ok to take something that you don’t know what to do with, and bury it underground so that you can pretend it no longer exists.

It’s like when you tell a kid to clean his room, and 5 minutes later he claims he’s done. When you check, sure enough, everything has just been shoved under the bed.

The world may feel like a big place, but there’s only so much space “under the bed” that we can bury things before there starts to be consequences. In nature, there’s no such thing as trash. Everything, at the end of its current life, begins a new purpose. Every waste stream is also fresh material for some other process.

There are smart people working on this. But we’re not quite there yet. We won’t ever be there, until we can finally decide to stop acting like little kids, burying our messes to pretend they don’t exist.




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