Let's bag those criticisms of plastic

The Baltimore Sun

I recently bought three bottles of water, which the cashier promptly placed in a plastic bag, doubling it for good measure.

In a single transaction, I became environmental enemy No. 1.

In the ever-growing list of things you must do to save the planet, eschewing plastic -- whether as a bag or a bottle for water -- is having its moment.

Cities like Annapolis are seeking to ban plastic bags, convenient for hauling groceries home but often ending up littering the curb, floating up to become entangled in tree branches or landing in the bay, where they threaten marine life. For others, bottled water has become the target du jour -- for the wasted energy of transporting something all the way from Fiji or France that is readily available from your tap, and bottling it in plastic containers that similarly end up as litter or in landfills.

In the history of plastic, this year may mark a low point -- if not quite as low as 1967, the year The Graduate forever sealed its fate as a symbol of all that was bourgeois and phony. Remember when the title character was advised by one of his parents' friends to remember just one word? "Plastics. ... There's a great future in plastics."

The friend may have been all too right. Americans go through 100 billion plastic bags a year, by one widely used estimate. And they buy about 28 billion plastic bottles of water every year, according to a recycling advocacy group.

In my defense, I have to say that I was away from home when I bought those errant bottles of water, far from either the water-filtering pitcher in my fridge or the reusable water bottle I forgot to bring. Plus, doesn't it seems unfair to single out bottled water as an environmental sin, while letting off the hook all the sodas, beers and other drinks that similarly come in disposable plastic containers? Why pick on the healthiest option on the convenience store shelf?

"In part, it's because bottled water consumption is growing so rapidly," said Janet Larsen, director of research for the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute. "But the main thing is we already have an efficient way of distributing water. Nothing is more efficient than turning on the tap."

You can't do the same thing, Larsen said, and get a soda. (Although, she notes, she's excited to hear that some restaurants are starting to invest in carbonation machines that will allow them to make their own fizzy waters.)

Larsen is one of the authors of a widely quoted report that has helped give bottled water such a bad name lately. She makes the case that millions of barrels of oil are being wasted, first to make the plastic bottles, then to fill and transport them to consumers -- most of whom have access to perfectly good, safe water in their taps. It's become an unbeatable argument, for some municipalities -- the mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco (which also has banned large retailers from using nonbiodegradable plastic bags) have stopped using city funds to buy bottled water for employees.

"Taxpayers were paying twice," Larsen said, first to operate the municipal water system, then for the bottled stuff for city employees.

Larsen said the problems with bottled water continue even after it is purchased and quaffed: Most of the bottles then end up as garbage. Perhaps the most surprising thing in Larsen's report is that only 14 percent of water bottles are recycled.

Well, maybe it's not so surprising -- recycling bins are few and far between in most public places. That, of course, is no excuse if you're drinking a bottled water at home, where you can just reach for one of those plastic grocery bags for the next recycling pickup -- thus killing both those bad birds with one stone.

It just goes to show: Plastic doesn't kill the planet, people do.

Meaning, they're the ones tossing their used plastic all over the place and filling up landfills. And the ones who aren't lobbying their government officials and local businesses to sprinkle more recycling bins around. Or speaking up when the cashier automatically double-bags your items. (The other day at the grocery store, I bought five items and somehow ended up with four bags.)

I surely could live a less plastic-intense life -- I keep meaning to start bringing a reusable tote bag to the store -- but surely not a plastic-free one. What would you put your garbage in, or your wet swim suit or those recyclable plastic bottles? But maybe if they weren't free, we wouldn't be so profligate with them -- since Ireland started taxing plastic bags five years ago, it's cut its usage by 90 percent.

Pay for a cheap, flimsy plastic bag? Who would agree to such a thing? Maybe the same people who eventually got used to paying for bottled water.


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