Free Bags Are Not Free

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 5:01 PM

Whether the choice is paper or plastic, the shopping bag you get comes with a cost. In the U.S., our culture is obsessed with convenience and quick cheap gratification. In the 70's we became aware of conservation efforts, and knew that we needed to save our trees and forests. Because the alternative was cheap (or so we thought) we quickly switched over from paper bags to plastic. Because we did not feel the pinch in our wallets, and plastic bags were handed out conveniently at every store visit, we assumed this was the solution. We were wrong. Once again life shows us that the cheap, easy option is not so cheap and easy. One way or another, convenience always comes at a cost.

According to reusit.com there are many costs associated with the consumption of plastic bags. First, there are production costs. Petroleum and natural gas products are used to manufacture plastic bags. This not only is taxing on the environment as we excavate and drill for these finite resources, but it affects the price we pay for fuel and products made with gas and oil as we become dependent on foreign suppliers who raise prices on whim.

Next are the consumption costs for the bags. Retailers pay about $4 billion a year for the "free" plastic bags. Guess who pays for that in higher prices at the checkout?

The bigger costs we incur are for the disposal and litter from these bags. We all know that it takes 1000 years for plastic to degrade. We hear it all the time. But they degrade only if exposed to the elements. Landfills bury waste, and sometimes keep it air tight. 1000 years might be hindered even more. We also have to pay for associated costs to haul our waste away and clean it up (more dependence on foreign gas and oil/ higher pump prices), We also hear about how plastics turn into tiny pieces that contaminate the soil and water. The media saturates us with the images of marine and land animals who die from eating this stuff. But these costs ARE ALL HIDDEN. Who feels the pinch from all these costs?

Because the common American is not aware of these costs, they continue with the same consumer patterns. IF EVERYONE KNEW HOW MUCH PLASTIC WASTE REALLY COSTS, wouldn't we really want to choose the option that would have less impact on our lives?

Many activists are purposing bans on plastic bags. This is a short term solution for a long term problem. People by nature always find ways around prohibitions. The only way our consumer patterns will change is if the American consumer becomes economically and overtly inconvenienced by these behaviors; especially at the wallet. Money always grabs our attention. That is why many groups to include reusit.com are in favor for taxing the use of these bags. As proven in Ireland, behavior will change when costs are openly felt (BBC).

Besides taxing the use of bags (both plastic or paper) we need to be aware of how our consumer behaviors create more costs and hurt our environment. Instead of looking for quick, cheap convenience to meet our needs (mostly wants)  we need to think about meeting our needs with an eye towards the future. In the long run, we end up reducing costs; personally and environmentally.


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