Friday, April 17, 2009

Sack the Bags

posted by Richard Gill

It's time to end the epidemic of plastic bags that are caught in trees, bushes, fences, you name it. Anything that stands vertically and is permeable to the wind will readily snag a bag and hold onto it just about forever. Every time I pick a plastic bag off the ground, I figure I kept it out of a tree. Any pool of water, or pond will hold plastic bags like glue.

It's awful to look at, is dangerous to animals, signifies waste, and uses petroleum. Take a ride downtown on Metra Electric and see the astounding display of plastic bags all over the margins of the right-of-way, especially the forested east side. It will get worse during the summer, when people take a flimsy single-use bag for, say, a bottle of soda and then discard it as soon as they're out the door.

Some cities in the U.S., notably San Francisco, have enacted various levels of restrictions or outright bans on plastic bags at retail stores. A growing number of countries in Europe, Africa and Asia are addressing the problem. Despite fear-mongering by merchants, the laws have not put their businesses in the toilet, nor have they somehow been detrimental to their customers.

I learned a lot at the site:

There are viable substitute materials with much longer useful lives, even compostable plastic bags. Programs to distribute and encourage the use of canvas and cloth bags have been successful.

Plastic bag recycling efforts seem to be woefully inadequate, and anti-littering laws don't cut it.

I wrote to Alderman Hairston about this problem. The mayor, for all his caring about urban beautification, has said little or nothing about the plastic bag invasion. The Chicago City Council should act on this matter before the entire city turns into an orgy of flying, fluttering, flapping, flimsy, filthy plastic.


Zig and Lou said...

A quick note, traditional plastic bags are no longer welcome at city farmer markets this summer.

Anonymous said...

Your blog is fantastic! Thank you so much for the good it does Hyde Park! And, litter is my pet peeve.

... However, I worry that asking the government to step in brings unintended unfortunate consequences.

... Would more expensive bags mean people shop elsewhere more often?

... And, I'm wondering if people would continue to pick up behind their dogs if plastic shopping bags disappeared? Would the landscape be dog-poop covered as it was when I grew up in Hyde Park in the '70s?

... Perhaps other alternatives? We could all advocate for better litter pick up by all of us in the neighborhood and from the city for public land? We can get rid of the overflowing garbage cans on 57th street which offer a steady stream of garbage blowing along the neighborhood? Or get them to have lids and be emptied more often? We can advocate for Lab and Ray school to keep their grounds tidy? other ideas? We can let businesses with garbage strewn fronts know that we will not give them business until they take better care of that area? (I have a neighbor already doing that! Thanks to her!)

... Along the litter lines. Also please let everyone know to call 311 each time they see graffiti to report it and ask to have it cleaned/covered. The city acts quickly for graffiti described as "gang graffiti."

Sorry for the very very long comment! Great blog.

Richard Gill said...

Any effort, such as getting rid of flimsy plastic bags at farmers markets, is progress. More policies like that are needed. I also like the measures advocated by Dr. Bremer; however, they depend on volunteerism by the public and good management by bureaucrats (and adequate budgets). Those are not enough, nor are they dependable.

This is a citywide issue, not just a Hyde Park issue. There needs to be a law, with penalties for noncompliance. The ordinance would apply primarily to retailers, and would be far easier to police, than a law applying to individuals. Also, this doesn't require a change in the way business is done, nor does it require new, unproven technology.

As for dog poop, I believe cleaning up after one's animals is now ingrained into common practice (helped along by the law, of course), and people will use sandwich bags or the like to pick up after their pets. The public backlash if this were not done would be swift. (Is there a purpose-made pooper picker upper bag sold at pet stores?)

There have been news stories about helium-filled balloons released en masse at public events, that eventually fall to the ground or into lakes, rivers and oceans, causing unsightly messes and ending up choking or strangling fish and wildlife. Nobody thought about that until recently. Same with bags. Millions have washed up on beaches and gotten caught on submerged reefs. It's a city problem that has spread to the world.

Zig and Lou said...

From a retail standpoint the economics of plastic versus paper versus reusable bags is interesting. The traditional plastic bag is incredibly inexpensive and is able to hold many items, paper bags are more expensive and have a tendency to fail, reusable bags (with logo, for marketing purposes) are a large investment as 5000 is a typical minimum order.

Anonymous said...

How about using the Finnish model and charge customers some small pittance (like 10 cents) if they want a bag? Post this and encourage people to bring reusable bags/backpacks/etc.? 10 cents is basically nothing but you'd be surprised at how many people will go out of their way to avoid paying 10 cents.

edj said...

So, forcing businesses to buy paper bags will maket harder for businesses to make money, particularly when businesses need every penny they can get. While I recognize that there are a lot of plastic bags out there, the number isvery small relative to the total number of bags that are distributed by stores. This looks like a public education issue. We can't be legislating everything.

Richard Gill said...

In response to edj - I believe this is both an education and legislative issue. Where there is dollar cost involved - or in this case, more a perceived than an actual cost - education won't be enough.

Yes, government often jumps in, when it needs to mind its own beeswax. I oppose the Illinois General Assembly proposal to require Metra to accept credit cards. That's meddling and micro-managing in a matter of mere inconvenience. Metra can be stubborn and resistant to change, but they will come around when enough of their customers demand it, and in any case, when a regionwide fare system is implemented in the next two or three years.

The bag thing, on the other hand, has environmental consequences. As for the cost of eliminating non-biodegradable plastic bags, it has worked without castastrophe elsewhere, and to the extent that it increases the acceptance of reusable bags, it will save merchants the cost of bags. I don't buy the cost argument about this environmental remediation any more than I do about Detroit's wailing over higher mileage standards. And if there is some short term cost, in the long run, we're all better off. Look at me, up here on a soapbox!

Stephen said...

Zig and Lou - but merchant bags have many uses too, some of which benefit the merchant. For example, one of my son's young friends came over to play. When our son brought out his toy trains in his red Z&H Market bag, his mother asked, what's Z&H. It gave us an opportunity to talk about Z&H for about 15 minutes. I think Z&H now has a new customer.

Also, to anyone interested, my wife and I bought the following bags from my niece who was raising money for her school: These bags are amazing. You can put three of them in your front pocket (or clip them to your belt loop) and walk to the store. I highly recommend them.

Richard Gill said...

Sunday, April 22, as a one-day environment-oriented promotion, Target store clerks were bagging merchandise in reusable cloth bags instead of plastic. The design on the bag has trees, and "Target" isn't blasted all over it.

Zig and Lou said...


Thanks for the plug. We do find our Red Bags helpful and a great way to make friends. The variety of uses is amazing.

Otto said...

I'm rather surprised that there has been no mention of the weird and often profligate plastic sacking at Treasure Island so far.

edj said...

I wonder what Peapod would do without the plastic bags. Items are placed in bags which are then placed in boxes. They give you the bags and take the boxes back. Can't really use the reusable bags. Switch to paper? That has other environmental effects from the production process there. They are having a positive effeect on the environment by keeping me and six (or so) other families from driving to and from the store.

Richard Gill said...

Maybe make an exception for home deliveries. It's the bags that are carried out of stores by customers that are the big problem. Or use biodegradeable plastic, etc. I'm sure there will be some necessary exceptions, as well as new solutions.

Anonymous said...

I never knew how multifaceted a plastic bag discussion could be! : )

Responding to author Gill -- are you cherry picking businesses to favor with cheaper overhead or preferred bags ie Peapod over Treasure Island? Is this the role of government? Should we so casually give away our freedoms of choice for the sake of litter? Aren't there other ways to take on important issues like litter (again my pet peeve -- have I mentioned I call 311 every day about grafitti too?) without giving up freedom and getting busy with legislation?

How about instead of changing things by law, to change by information like via this wonderful blog! ... What if we all spread around the information that paper bags or of course cloth are better for the environment -- and perhaps more people would choose this. (Honestly, I used to think paper bags meant more trees cut down so were worse for the environment! Thanks to this blog I will sometiems change my choices!) (I have to make sure I have enough plastic bags for the dog still)

On the same note, how about if each of your readers encourages everyone they know and their friends to start a habit of unlittering -- picking up at least one item of litter (ideally plastic bags in honor of the author!) a day. How about making HP the mecca of such a standard. I just saw a gentleman out attacking litter this evening and was very grateful. I should have said something but my aforementioned dog was pulling the other way.

There are communities more along such lines ... In Holland MI, for example, there is no litter to be seen even in struggling areas and despite the horrid economy of MI. Of course less density makes this easier, but I have the feeling it wouldn't matter how much litter it was for that place. Its just the spirit of the town.

Yet another lengthy comment. Sorry about that. I seem to be having too much fun with it.

Richard Gill said...

Dr Bremer -

If there's another effective way, other than by law, that's fine with me. It would be worth a try. However, I am skeptical.

I suppose I was proposing a possible unfair advantage for the Peapods of the world, if one buys the premise that any other type of bagging would cost more than what's used at present. I don't.

Anyway, thanks, all, for jumping in with ideas and criticism. That's what I like about this blog.

chicago pop said...

I have to congratulate Richard and publicly express my admiration for anyone who can get a spirited discussion going about plastic bags.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the debate was really all about plastic bags.

... Have I mentioned that I promoted this wonderful blog for mental health on my blog at:

Thanks again for your efforts.

chicago pop said...

Jennifer, let's say we looked into the plastic bag, and found that it was bottomless. I would rather be an unhappy man with a bottomless plastic bag, than a happy swine with a bottomed one. :)

Thank you for your support - it is truly appreciated. Even more pleasing is validation from mental health experts, something I think it's fair to say none of us would have bet on.

fred said...

It takes MORE energy to both manufacture AND to recycle paper bags compared to plastic bags...since i recycle my plastic bags, i dont feel the least bit guilty about using them.

I don't know what a good answer to the problem is. To me, charging people per bag is inconvenient and banning them altogether seem like a bit of overkill.