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Bagging Eternal Plastics

By New York Times (The New York Times) - April 16, 2007

Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic bags every year, mountains of plastic that can last for 1,000 years, give or take a few centuries. And when they are not properly thrown away, they litter the countryside, killing birds or choking creatures like sea turtles. The bags now flap from so many bushes and trees that some South Africans started calling them their national flower.

Outside the United States, companies and countries are starting to deal with this convenient menace. After Ireland slapped a tax on plastic bags, use dropped by 90 percent almost immediately.

In America, where plastic beats paper bags by the ton, San Francisco has become the first major city to start banning nonbiodegradable plastic bags in its larger grocery stores and pharmacies.

Last month the Swedish company Ikea brought its “Bag the Plastic Bag” campaign to America. The stores charge customers for plastic bags (the money goes to a conservation group) and they encourage shoppers to bring their own. The company’s goal was to cut plastic bag use in half — from 70 million per year to 35 million — but it has already done far better than that, cutting use by 80 percent.

As the nation looks for ways to save energy, states and local governments should begin figuring out how to nudge customers toward those carryalls that can be recycled or used again. In the meantime, consumers need to ask themselves a few basic questions, such as: How do I stop adding to the world’s polyethylene mountain range, and why do I need a plastic bag when I buy a pack of gum?