Just the Thing to Carry Your Conscience In
Just the Thing to Carry Your Conscience In
By MARIAN BURROS
Published : July 18, 2007 / The New York Times
If you are reading this anytime after dawn on Wednesday, you are probably too late to make a fashion statement and simultaneously keep the world safe from plastic bags.
At 8 this morning, 15 Whole Foods stores in the New York area were to start selling $15 cotton bags by Anya Hindmarch, a London designer better known for bags that range to $1,500 and beyond. The bags, which read “I’m not a plastic bag,” are intended to be used and reused for groceries, in place of plastic. Whole Foods is selling 20,000, first come first served, limit three to a customer while supplies last. If offerings of the bag in other cities are any guide, the lines will be long.
A stampede of would-be purchasers in Taiwan in June sent 30 people to the hospital and required the riot police. A similar outpouring in Hong Kong caused no injuries, but the police closed down the shopping mall. “Apparently they are not used to queuing,” Ms. Hindmarch said last week from a hotel in Tokyo, where she had just finished the latest offering of her bag. To avoid more riots, future events in Southeast Asia will take place on the Internet.
What started out as a small effort in London to reduce the number of biodegradable-resistant plastic bags that litter the landscape has become a wildly successful worldwide campaign. With 34 stores around the world and 20 more opening this year, Ms. Hindmarch knows that even if you can’t interest people in a cause on moral or ethical grounds you can reach them by making the cause fashionable.
“To create awareness you have to create scarcity by producing a limited edition,” she said. “I hate the idea of making the environment trendy, but you need to make it cool and then it becomes a habit.”
Even before Ms. Hindmarch’s canvas tote became the talk of London, enough people were talking about plastic shopping bags that they qualified as a cause célèbre. In recent years, governments around the world have considered bans on them, and stores have found new tactics for weaning customers from them.
Made from polyethylene, a petroleum product, the bags may take as long as 500 years to degrade. Meantime they hang from trees, catch on power lines, float on oceans and lakes and clog storm drains, killing birds, fish, turtles and sea mammals unfortunate enough to ingest them or become entangled in them.
Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year, recycling less than 1 percent of them, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research and advocacy group in Washington.
San Francisco is the first American city to ban the nonbiodegradable bags. Later this year, first supermarkets and then large chain pharmacies there will have to offer biodegradable and compostable bags. The drawback is that they are much more expensive than the nonrecyclables.
Antibag bills are being considered in Boston; Baltimore; Annapolis, Md.; Portland, Ore.; and Santa Monica and Oakland, Calif.
New York City is in the early stages. As part of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s “green” campaign, the city sponsors public service announcements telling people to use cloth bags for grocery shopping and to reuse plastic bags.
City Councilman Michael E. McMahon, the chairman of the council’s sanitation and solid waste management committee, is from Staten Island, where he remembers the bags blowing all over from the Fresh Kills landfill, now closed. His committee is drafting a bill to require stores to take back plastic bags from customers. He hopes that in four or five years, people will be able to recycle them with their glass and paper.
Most of the city’s supermarket chains already offer reusable cloth bags for about $1. D’Agostino plans to give away 20,000 at its 19 stores in New York City and Westchester in September. Whole Foods stores in the New York region sell a model printed with a retro honey logo. They also offer a discount of 10 cents to any shopper who returns a plastic bag to the store for reuse.
For all these efforts, though, the United States is far behind other parts of the world in addressing concerns about plastic bags. In places like South Africa, Zanzibar, Scandinavia and Uganda, the use of such bags has been reduced or eliminated by banning or taxing them, by charging for them in stores, by giving incentives to customers who provide their own bags and by selling inexpensive reusable bags made of recycled plastic or cloth.
By the end of the year the bags will be banned in Paris, and by 2010 in all of France. In Ireland, where the plastic bags are known as the national flag, they have cost 20 cents each, at the government’s direction, since 2002; the fee has been credited with cutting bag use more than 90 percent.
In Uganda plastic bags are banned entirely. Bans, restrictions or incentives to switch to reusable bags are in place in towns and cities in Australia, India, Pakistan, Taiwan, Canada and Britain. Various restrictions or charges are in place in Japan, Germany, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Italy. For about a decade Scandinavian countries have charged for bags, whether plastic or paper. Last March Ikea began charging 5 cents for plastic bags in its stores in the United States.
But all those efforts are foolish, according to the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., a trade group.
“Most of the legislation being proposed to ban or limit the use of plastic bags is misguided,” it said in a statement. “The problem is not plastic bags. The problem is behavioral — the human propensity to litter. The solution is for all of us to change our behavior and learn to reduce, reuse, recycle and properly dispose of plastic bags.”
The statement also said the industry is investing in recycling facilities.
Lost in the criticism of plastic bags is the fact that paper bags have their own environmental cost, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, another research and advocacy group. By the council’s reckoning, the plastic bags used in the United States each year require some 12 million barrels of oil to produce, and paper bags, 14 million trees.
Even so, Ms. Hindmarch hasn’t given up plastic bags entirely. “There’s no way I’m going to put a smelly fish in a canvas bag,” she said.
Anyone reading this while standing in a bag line, beware: according to Ms. Hindmarch some Hong Kong bag-seekers who withstood the stampede but went away empty-handed planned to fly to New York to try again.
“I don’t want to think about the carbon footprint for that,” she said. Or the trampled.
If money is no object, the disappointed can be made whole. As of midday yesterday more than 200 were for sale on eBay, some for more than $300.