Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are a detriment to society. For the most part they offer convenience and nothing more. This is true of many disposable items, which I will address more broadly in another post. For now let’s focus on the plastic bag, for which I pose several scenarios, some of which would replace the plastic bag. Let’s focus further on the plastic bag used specifically at checkout during the shopping experience. I will attempt to prove that society, in particular the consumer and retailer, would be better off without the plastic bag. Here are the scenarios.

  • individual purchases a bag of chips at the store, cashier places chips in bag without asking if customer wants bag; customer walks out of the store, removes bag of chips and then disposes plastic bag in the garbage; customer then consumes chips and disposes of chip bag (probably also made partially from plastic–it is oh so smooth)
  • same scenario as above but without additional plastic bag
  • customer purchases chips from a bulk bin, using a clear plastic bag provided ‘free of charge” by the store; no additional bag is provided at register; customer consumes chips and discards bag
  • customer purchases chips from a bulk bin, either electing to purchase a bag from the store or use her/his own bag or container from home

Which scenario is the most sustainable? Is it feasible to transport chips in bulk without them cracking? What are the impacts of the disposed plastic bags? In the first scenario, what benefit does additional plastic bag serve? I would like to examine the last scenario further.

  • customer purchases chips from a bulk bin, either electing to purchase a bag from the store or use her/his own bag or container from home

In my opinion this last scenario, particularly in the case that the consumer brings her/his own bag, is the most sustainable. Why? An inherent trait of sustainability (using resources today in such a way that does not pose a threat to the same resources in the future) is the reduced usage of resources. For example, it is more sustainable to not throw a plastic bag in the garbage than to do so. By not discarding the bag, the consumer is not using the bag, which in theory should (down the long road) translate to one less bag produced by industry. One less bag produced translates to fewer resources used and excavated in order to fabricate that bag. So, by not using the bag resources are saved.

What if in this bulk scenario the store offers bags? Well, this is not the ideal, because the bags the store supplies are almost guaranteed to be new, which as noted above translates to more resources used. An individual on the other hand could use a reusable container (there are all sorts of reusable containers out there, think the more durable, the more sustainable) that she/he already possesses. Assuming that at checkout the cashier does not bag the individual’s own container there will be no new plastic changing hands during this transaction, which represents the goal.

Why is this good? Well, besides noting that nonrenewable resources are saved, this saved plastic bag presents a financial savings to various parties along the supply chain. The retailer will not need to pay for the bag in which the cashier would have otherwise placed the bag of chips. Considering that retailers often buy pallets (boxes?) of plastic bags, reducing or eliminating plastic bag usage will free up their floor and storage space. The consumer, who despite her/his comforts in thinking otherwise, is secretly charged for the bag by the retailer, might (not a certainty) expect to receive savings passed on from the retailer.

The plastics (and petroleum because the two must intermingle) industry might suffer in this new-plastic-less system the most, but then again, environmental stewardship cannot please everyone or else it would be called economic stewardship (I’m not sure what that means).


About Emerging Environments

Thoughts about environmental policy, sustainability, cancer, and more.
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