Waste Watch: Single Use Plastics, Please Ban Them, Now

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I know better, I really do.

But last night, with my husband sitting waiting for me in the car as I grabbed some groceries, I consented to have my purchases bundled into a single-use plastic bag: crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, sour cream, a couple of hoagie rolls, and two perfectly ripe rose d’anjou pears.

I never leave the house without a grocery bag: alas, after a visit to my chiropractor, that now held a couple of bottles of sherry, and some red wine. And thus laden, it was sitting on the floor of the car – across the street from where I now stood.

I could have handled those groceries, sans my bag – except for those pears.

This, dear readers, is why we need regulation. To save us from our worst selves.

That plastic bag, sitting across the table from me now, reminds me of my own weakness. I should have juggled my groceries, and just said no.

But I didn’t.

I could at this point go all defensive and point out – if the gossamer plastic bag was not available, the grocer would have wrapped it all up, as in my youth, in a paper bag.

Alas, she didn’t.

So, it’s back on me. And so I consented to dumping it all into a single-use plastic bag. Thus contributing to the worldwide plastics crisis.

Let’s Deal With Our Own Garbage

With that as a backdrop, I report a recent positive development.

Waste Management  reports, according to Waste Dive, Waste Management and Casella confirm plastic export policies:

Waste Management wrote in a policy statement that the company “is not shipping plastics collected on its residential recycling routes and processed in its single stream material recovery facilities to locations outside North America.” Casella Waste Systems CEO John Casella similarly confirmed “100 percent of our residential plastics recycling volume will be processed and sold in the United States.” Resource Management Companies, Single Stream Recyclers and TFC Recycling also made the same commitment.

Now, cynics might say, wealthy countries have no choice in this ever since China banned recycling imports, thus throwing global recycling markets into chaos (see As Developing Countries Reject Plastic Waste Exports, Wealthy Nations Seek Solutions and Recycling Woes: Indonesia Sends Waste Shipment Back to Australia).Following an initial flurry of confusion, developing countries are no longer willing to serve as dumping ground for the world’s rubbish (toxic or otherwise, and regardless of what economists such as Lawrence Summers say they should do).

Nonetheless, again according to Waste Dive:

Plastics may still be getting exported to overseas markets, but major recycling companies say it isn’t coming from them. Responding to an audience question at WasteExpo on May 7, CFOs from Waste Management, Republic Services, Waste Connections, Casella Waste Systems and WCA Waste quickly confirmed they’re now keeping all collected plastics domestic.

This latest Waste Management development I see as a good sign. Too many of us believe in the tender ministrations of the recycling fairy or her kin – the technofix fairy: we don’t have to reduce our reliance on plastics or figure out how to reuse the waste we generate, as it all gets happily recycled or otherwise ‘fixed’ anyway (see Plastic Watch: Debunking the Technofix Fairy, Biodegradable Bags Don’t Degrade

But if we need to confront where that “recycling” actually goes to – perhaps we’ll see that it’s not much of a solution to the plastics crisis after all (despite what we might wish, see One Very Bad Habit Is Fueling the Global Recycling Meltdown).

Whilst visiting my Mom during August, in High Point, North Carolina, I frequented her local farmers market (a visit I wrote about here). Corn, tomatoes, peaches: yum. And when purchasing produce, I always eschewed plastic bags offered to me. And when so doing, was told by vendors, they’re not a problem: if recycled. And then, gently –  I’m a Yankee, after all, and I was visiting southern climes- and only occasionally, I let those kind and well-meaning people know the actual state of play with recycling.

Reduce, reuse, recycle – repair. Not exactly an inspirational mantra. But the best we currently have.

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    1. Noel Nospamington

      And also reuse plastic bags for organic waste that we need to drop off into municipal composing bins.

      And what about produce bags and meat packaging, which are required for legitimate health concerns?

      Perhaps some type biodegradable cellulose type material which can made water and air tight can be used instead of plastic.

    2. Thomas P

      They also fold up nicely so you can put it in your pocket and forget about it until the next time you need a bag.

  1. Phemfrog

    Republic services used to collect plastic bags in our curbside recycling bins, but once China stopped taking them, they changed their policy. They are asking for things to be cleaner and dryer, and i am back to taking bags (from my family…i use cloth) back to walmart for recycling.

  2. marieann

    Why oh why do we beat ourselves up for not being perfect, we do the best we can with what we have.

    The world is not set up to help us and so I agree single use plastic needs to be banned….well I’d ban all plastics unless they can prove it will be recovered and then reused at the end of it’s use.

  3. human

    Plastic bottles are a blight on our children’s future and I have yet to read of someone confronting the single use, plastic garbage bag (speaking of irony).

  4. a different chris

    Ban Them Now.

    Yes yes yes!! — in a broad sense, we need gummint to step in on this kind of stuff. Sure we can do some individual things better but we “little people” can only do so much without actual changes codified in law. Once upon a time you would have at least (and I don’t know the environmental footprint, but pretty sure it’s a lot smaller) the option of a paper bag.

    But you don’t. And that change wasn’t your decision. You don’t have a lot of options, despite the fact that you (and me and most of the readers here) sit at a higher-up spot on the pyramid. But I can’t tell my boss I’m not going to fly to LA. I can’t work at home all the time. I don’t know where the toilet flush goes to at work. I can’t afford to outfit my house with solar panels, yet anyway.

    Shorter me- don’t be so hard on yourself, the problem is bigger than you can tackle yourself.

  5. CletracSteve

    Purely anecdotal and free of numbers: I live in a state where waste is almost mandated, Pennsylvania. Yes, we have recycling to appease a segment of the population, but with Alcoa and PPG headquarters in Pittsburgh, fat chance to get deposits on beverage containers or returnable bottles. Limitations on plastic bag use was soundly defeated by our Rep. lead legislature. The Senate Floor Leader, Jake Corman, lives in a district with a significant single use bag manufacturer.

    I was recently talking to an employee from said factory who commented on the moaning from the supervisors. They are seeing a slow yet constant and continual drop in orders/customers. Yes we’d like to see a sudden stop to such bags, but this anecdote indicates progress.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Another anecdote here – I’m in Japan now, after travelling through South Korea and like most here I am grazing my way through convenience stores to save money and time. I twice heard the comment – once in a hostel, one in a convenience store that ‘westerners don’t like plastic bags’ – it seems that younger travelers are now in the habit of saying no at shops, etc (everything here in the convenience store is multiply wrapped in plastic). So I think there is a societal change now, people are using them a little less without thinking of it too much.

      It’s many years ago, but I recall some reading some research on peoples habits around waste, and it found that people are very resistant to doing what they are used to, but once they do, the ‘norm’ can change very rapidly, and what once seemed the natural way of doing things can become socially unacceptable. While I think that regulation is acceptable, its entirely possible that sufficient bottom up social pressure could force change more rapidly than everyone expects.

      1. ook

        Food sections of major department stores in Japan have been giving me the choice of paper or plastic for quite a few years now. So they are ready to move to all paper, if only customers stopped specifically asking for plastic.

        In Mumbai one of the western-style supermarkets sells one-time-use bags that seem to be made of paper but are woven somehow to feel like cloth. The only problem with these, which I’m sure can be fixed, is they start to disintegrate a bit too quickly and you get home with your groceries covered in white powder-like substance.

      2. thene

        I wonder if it’s that many of those young Western travellers are from places that have plastic bag restrictions – if they have enough income to travel to Asia, they may work in one of those bastions of the coastal elite that have enacted such restrictions. Additionally parts of Europe (such as the UK) have plastic bag fees. So those young westerners may have already been forced to change their habits & be sticking to it even without the restrictions present.

  6. Michael

    I reuse the ones I own time and time again.
    Those pears don’t soil a bag, so reuse.
    Or rinse the minor debris off by holding them inside out and let dry on counter.
    Keep em in my cloth bag for my next trip.
    Try to not pick up any at the store. 80-20 rule…

  7. John Zelnicker

    Jerri – It’s a shame the store didn’t have some cloth bags for sale at the register like Walmart does. I went shopping a couple of days ago and bought much more than usual since I hadn’t been in a long time. One of my canvas bags was already in use so I didn’t have enough room in the other three. I just bought another one for $5 instead of using the one or two plastic bags I would have otherwise needed. Every retailer should have cloth bags available at the register for those who don’t have them and they should promote them.

    1. Thomas P

      You have to reuse those canvas bags a lot of times before they are better for the environment than plastic bags. You probably do, but when stores start pushing them, people buy them to feel environment friendly and then just leave them at home. They are a good alternative only for people who are already interested enough to make sure to reuse them.

  8. JCC

    I’ll give CA some credit here, they passed a law requiring $0.10 charge for a plastic bag and they are heavy-duty, easily reused. I keep about 10 or 15 in the back of my car… in a reusable plastic bag. If I can’t carry the few items I buy at the local grocery in my hands, I pull a bag out of my back pocket that came out of the back of the car.

    It’s still plastic, but I haven’t used a new, cheap, single-use, plastic bag with a store purchase in a couple of years.

    And it shows in the neighborhood, too. Here in the north Mohave Desert we get serious wind storms just about weekly, and two years ago I would walk around my yard picking up numerous shredded plastic bags after each storm. I hardly ever see even 1 nowadays.

    Of course I still pick up empty plastic bottles, beer cans and other debris (paper, McDonalds wrappers, etc).

    (I used to think CA was a clean State before I moved here but now I realize it is one of the most liter-filled States I’ve ever lived in, at least this part of the State is)

    1. Another Scott

      Meanwhile in Massachusetts, we can’t even get the existing deposit extended to cover water, wine and hard alcohol. In my experience, drink containers without deposits, which also includes disposable coffee and soda cups, makes up more of litter than plastic bags.

  9. cnchal

    I have to ask. What is the material that diabetes inducing low level poison marketed as Coca Cola comes in?

    Would it be all good if that crap came in a returnable glass bottle, only?

    Priorities, priorities!

  10. Ignacio

    Spanish public TV is issuing an excellent series on plastic recycling in Spain which, I regret to say, is only available in spanish. I am leaving a link here for those with good spanish skills for the first chapter that describes how badly the system works and how difficult is to obtain reliable information.
    This series could serve as an excellent link to make a radiography of the system and analyse its failures.

  11. thene

    Here in Boston large retailers are required to charge a fee for providing single-use plastic bags (I think it’s 5c in Boston and 10c in Cambridge – I never pay it so I’m hazy on this). They provide paper or reusable bags instead………so clearly, these chains have the ability to provide paper bags to their shoppers nationwide, they’re just willfully not doing so.

    (Boston’s discount produce market is exempt, so I take an appropriate number of bags from there and re-use them for shopping at other places and lining small wastebaskets at home. I always have around 3 scrunched-up plastic bags in the side pocket of my handbag).

  12. Danny

    How about an 8″X10″ solid plastic sheet, with a “valuable” detachable wallet sized card, upon which is a online promo code. That is what millions of people found in their mail box a couple weeks ago. At least it was marked #7 “Other, un-recyclable.”

    Thanks Wine.com, I will boycott you forever, and encourage anyone who cares about the environment to do the same.

    We have seen other similar sized cards advertising things in our mail. Call the business, raise hell and boycott them. Paraphrasing George Bush Jr.,
    “You are either with us, or you are with the environmental terrorists.”

  13. CanCyn

    I like to remind everyone that the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle phrase was designed very deliberatly so that the actions are in order of priority. Reduce is the most important of the three. I like Jerri-Lynn’s addition of the word Repair, I think it should be a 4th R and it should come second in the phrase: Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle.
    I try to purchase only loose produce and not use any plastic bags at the grocery story or the farmers market but it can be tough, especially for berries. Once at the check-out, a cashier tried to put my apples in a plastic bag and when I stopped her she complained that it was much easier for her to weigh them if they were in a plastic bag! She was a bit taken aback when I suggested that the health of the planet was probably more important than her convenience.
    Mostly though, I think my personal efforts do more to assuage my own guilt than actually help with planetary health.

  14. Synoia

    I believe a ban on single use plastic is nice, but I do not understand the half-measure.

    We need a ban on Plastic. A return to the ’60s.

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