Saturday, January 20, 2007

Would you like biodegradable plastic or canvas?

The need to transfer all our stuff from one place to another seems to pose one of the great dilemmas of our time-- a fact brought on, in part, by the fact that we have and acquire so much stuff to transfer. It is a dilemma for cities as well, as city sanitation systems must deal with the overflow of packaging discarded from residents' homes. San Francisco is making an effort, in cooperation with grocery stores, to reduce the number of plastic grocery bags used each year by 10 million. As part of this effort, the city is asking grocery stores to voluntarily submit data on their customers' use of plastic grocery bags last year. The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting today that three grocery store chains in the city have submitted their 2006 data. No word yet on what the data show, or on how to track what their customers are doing with the bags--taking them home to reuse them, recycling them (which can be done at many grocery stores), or throwing them straight in the garbage, the practice my friend from Safeway favors.

Of course, we have to eat, which means, for most of us, that we have to transfer food from the grocery store to our homes. Bags are the obvious choice for carrying food, but we can encourage people to use and reuse their own bags by offering discounts to those who bring their own bags or by charging people for store bags (the latter approach is taken in many countries, while the former is common in the US). We could at least go back to using paper, which I find a somewhat less objectionable option than plastic for many reasons, particularly when they are sturdy and easy to reuse.

San Francisco's approach is to start thinking about requiring stores to use biodegradable plastic, a second-best option that seems to acknowledge the difficulty of forcing other people to change their behavior. On the plus side, replacing plastic bags with biodegradable plastic bags will require nothing of consumers. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastic may be the same sort of solution to our packaging needs that recycling is--that is, probably better than doing nothing, but not better than reducing our use to begin with. Any kind of plastic still requires enormous energy and material to produce, and, as Planet Ark notes, the biodegradability of biodegradable bags is still in question. Here's hoping that a shift to biodegradable is accompanied with a clear message that "bring your own bag" is still the best move.

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