"Because you can't hug a tree if you can't find one."

10/30/2007

The End of an Era

There is a rapidly growing global movement away from disposable plastics. More and more countries and municipalities (like Kenya, Thailand and Ireland, and cities like San Francisco, Annapolis, and Austin) are banning or taxing plastic grocery bags, and the use of disposable water bottles is under scrutiny. The interesting thing about all this is that it represents a growing awareness of environmental issues, of the need for sustainability.

Are we experiencing a moment of green trendiness? Or, is it the beginning of a real shift: from consuming whatever quantity of resources our convenience (and multinational corporations) demand, towards making responsible choices that reduce our environmental impact.

If this is going to be more than a fad, we have to maximize the number of people that support these initiatives. Ignore people’s concerns, and they have no incentive to change. We need to be able to see the benefits of going green, not just the sacrifices we’ll have to make.

Benefits of Reducing Disposable Plastics

-decreased dependence on petroleum

-decreased pollution from manufacturing plastics

-cleaner streets, parks, trees

-less sidewalk litter to clean up

-less trash and recycling to carry out

-no lugging home cases or gallons of water

-fewer bags and bottles to store in your kitchen

-tote bags are easier to carry, sturdier, and hold more

Of course, many of these are social benefits, and a consumer society overly dependent on modern conveniences is primarily concerned with personal benefits. (Those who spend their time in their back yard and get around by car don’t put a high priority on the condition of public parks and sidewalks.) So it is a hard sell. And I haven’t even addressed what seems to be the #1 objection to banning grocery bags: “What will we put our trash in?”

Waste Reduction

Consumer societies produce an obscene amount of trash. Many of us ignore all the important reasons to eliminate disposables because we are determined not to be inconvenienced. We just don’t want to lose access to our free trash bags. If people end up having to buy more garbage bags, net plastic use won’t decrease after all.

Municipal governments will have to step in with creative solutions to deal with this issue, tailored to the needs of their communities. For instance, if new regulations require manufacturers to decrease all packaging and eliminate non-recyclable materials, and if retailers make more bulk and refillable options available, there will be less to throw away in the first place. Next, if communities institute curbside compost pick-up (like in San Francisco and Seattle) and “wet” trash is separated, what is left can go to the sidewalk in a can with no liner at all! (Gasp!) Whether the compost is used as fertilizer or fuel, what used to be waste can now be used as a resource.

Some people are already looking at this historical moment as an opportunity. Many companies are marketing reusable grocery bags, and reusable bottle companies are promoting their products as eco-friendly alternatives to bottles water. But the new era shouldn’t be all about shopping for newer, greener kinds of products (after all, any old tote bag will do). This moment is an opportunity to put the throw away era behind us and begin building a sustainable future.

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