Introducing RebEarth, a new, regularly appearing column at Five O’Clock Shadow where we share simple sustainability tips you can implement in your everyday life. Let’s start with an easy one- plastic bags.

Thin plastic bags are really good for some things; like cleaning up dog dirt in the yard, and serving as an action figure’s parachute as they “dive” out the window. They’re also very good at losing their handles when loaded down with anything even remotely heavy.

But as underwhelming as that upside is, the downside is much worse. They do not biodegrade. They blow all over the place. They float across the ocean. They roll over the roadways. They get stuck in the trees. Animals, especially sea life, sometimes eat them and choke to death. Great, right? 

Plastic bags are often mistaken by sea life as food, often causing the animals to choke and die.

In simplified form, the lifecycle of a plastic bag goes something like this:

Oil or gas, thousands of years in the making, is pumped out of the ground, using resources and causing pollution. Once extracted, the oil goes to a factory where it’s mixed with other things and eventually becomes a plastic bag, creating more pollution and depleting more resources in the process. 

Then, that bag is shipped to a store somewhere, burning more fossil fuel and causing- any guesses? (Hint: more pollution) You go to that store and buy a few items which are placed in the bag at checkout. You carry that bag to your car, and then from your car to your house. Then you place that bag in the trash can, unless you are saving it for some creative use with action figures or dog excrement. The bag gets collected with the trash and goes to a landfill, where it stays forever and ever, unless it happens to escape, blowing freely around the world like a noxious tumbleweed. If we’re lucky, the bag may get burned in an incinerator. On the other hand, burning plastic may not be the smartest thing we’ve ever done as far as air quality goes.

From a distance, this may look like a flower. But up close it’s just another plastic bag, stuck somewhere it doesn’t belong.

So after everything involved in making that bag, we use the thing for barely a few minutes before throwing it away. Is this the best we can do? 

How much stuff do we really put in these bags anyway? At the grocery store they pack them pretty good, but otherwise, we’re usually carrying only one or two items in them. If we go to Old Navy and buy a shirt, they put it in a big plastic bag. If we go to Wawa for a sandwich and a pack of Tastykakes, they put them in a bag. Pretty much everywhere we go to buy anything, the clerk’s instinct is to put our stuff in a bag. It’s meant as a customer service but really it’s an environmental disservice.

So what should we do if we want to buy stuff but don’t want to choke the environment with bags? Fortunately, this is an easy one – carry the stuff with your own hands! That’s right – you wrap your fingers around the items, squeeze gently, and lift. And with very little effort you will be carrying your stuff from the store out to the car, and then from the car into your house. Best yet – you’ll have nothing to throw away when you’re done.

If you’re afraid this crazy idea won’t work (especially in cases like the grocery store where, admittedly, you have more than an armful to carry), just bring your own reusable cloth bags with you. Most grocery stores sell them right there at the checkout counter. This is not only good for the environment but also a good money making scheme for the stores because many people, myself included, forget to bring their bags back to the store with them, making it necessary to buy more reusable bags. Or you could outsmart forgetfulness by leaving your bags in the trunk of your car so they’re always there when you need them, like a good friend.

Most grocery stores have reusable cloth bags available at a low price, right there at the check-out counter.

Between reusable grocery bags and good old human hand power, we should be able to eliminate single use plastic bags from our lives. In fact, several cities around the country have done that already including San Francisco CA, Boston MA, Milwaukee WI, Seattle WA, Oakland CA, Portland OR, Anchorage AK, Honolulu HI, and Bath ME. Many other communities have instituted taxes or fees to discourage plastic bag usage.

Nobody has died or stroked out over this and no back injuries have been reported by people trying to carry items in their hands. Not every environmental problem has a simple solution but this one does. We just have to get into the habit of saying, “No bag please” when we go to the checkout counter. 

Awareness is half of the solution. So be aware that when you go to the counter, you don’t need a bag. When they ask if you want one, say no. Better yet, preempt them by telling them you don’t want one.

Don’t be a drag – bag the bag and make checking out a literal hands-on experience!

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