While the world’s political heavyweights squared off in Copenhagen over climate change, I stood in my pajamas fuming over a single polyethylene bag. Like a lot of people, I bought into the notion that plastic bags are a bad idea. They’re a petrochemical product, typically used once and then thrown away. “Thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere,” Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, declared back in June. “There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.”
Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls plastic bags “the most ubiquitous form of waste in the world.” And he backs up his claim with daunting statistics: Americans use 100 billion plastic shopping bags a year, made from 12 million barrels of oil. Five hundred billion to a trillion of these things are used annually worldwide. In New York City, according to a study of the waste stream, plastic grocery-type bags make up about 2.73 percent of residential garbage—in the neighborhood of 180 million pounds a year.
Around 2007, when a landmark plastic-bag ban took effect in San Francisco, I decided to cut back on my use of disposable bags. After briefly carrying around a couple of small cotton totes—the kind invariably printed with annoying slogans like “This is not a plastic bag”—I discovered the Baggu, a large, colorful, well-designed nylon shopping bag created by an endearing mother-daughter start-up. By using one, I wasn’t saving the planet, but as a New Yorker—with a carbon footprint about a third the size of the average American’s and a 12-pack of Trader Joe’s recycled toilet paper in the red shopping bag I carry on my walk home—I thought I was behaving as well as I could. And as the mountain of plastic bags that once loomed over a corner of my apartment dwindled, I even allowed myself to feel virtuous.
But then again, each morning I open my apartment door and pluck the New York Times off the hallway carpet. (Yes, I subscribe to the dead-tree edition. I’m doing what I can to keep a fading institution alive; call it a charitable donation.) On rainy or snowy days, the paper used to arrive wrapped in plastic; in dry weather it was delivered, as it should be, naked. A couple of months ago, however, it began showing up in plastic every day. It’s a skinny sheath that I don’t find especially useful—it’s the wrong shape for lining garbage cans, and I don’t have a dog—and it’s printed with eco-propaganda: “Bring it back. This bag is recyclable.” (If it came emblazoned with the words “This IS a plastic bag,” I’d almost forgive them.)
The Times, Lord knows, is doing its best to mitigate its carbon footprint. A section of its corporate Web site is devoted to the paper’s “environmental stewardship.” The company claims to use approximately 25 percent recycled newsprint in its publications and soy-based inks in the color sections; it also supports a range of sustainable forest-management practices. When the Times green blogger Kate Galbraith (who was just laid off) took up this matter in late 2008, she wrote that she used her Times bags to store cheese and scones, and reported that the newspaper would soon be using biodegradable plastic bags. Less than a month later, Galbraith wrote that the manufacturer’s claims about its bags (“the greatest thing to ever hit the earth”) were unfounded, and the Times decided to stick with conventional plastic. This is probably for the best, since biodegradable bags decay better in backyard compost than in massive landfills, and tend to contaminate—or at least complicate—recycling streams. They’re often made from corn-based polymers. And though corn is a renewable resource, it’s grown with petrochemical fertilizers and processed by companies—Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill—with about as much eco-cred as ExxonMobil.
Sometimes the poly bag is printed with a message: “This bag contains at least 20% post-industrial material.” Very nice. Recycling plastic bags is better than simply tossing them away, but why does the newspaper have to come in a bag in the first place? Is it useful for corralling unwieldy advertising supplements or merely convenient because it can be printed with advertising? Are publishers so cowed that they don’t want to risk losing a single subscriber to a wet newspaper? I don’t know, because my attempts to get an answer from the Times were unsuccessful. Newspapers once came wrapped in nothing more than a rubber band. They used to be what we’d wrap other things in. The plastic bag is another sad sign that the print edition of my daily newspaper is getting left behind by a changing culture.
But how much impact has the zeitgeist had on the waste stream and carbon production? When I asked about the effectiveness of plastic-bag bans, incentives (five cents back from Target for every bag you bring, five to ten cents from Whole Foods), and the emerging BYO ethos, Hershkowitz told me that it was “too early to tell.” According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s main recycling center has reported a 5–10 percent decrease in plastic-bag volume; a spokesman for the city’s Department of the Environment estimated that up to 30 percent of the city’s grocery shoppers were using their own bags. Meanwhile, in the U.K., following a government challenge to retailers to halve bag use, there was a 48 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags handed out between May 2006 and May 2009 and a comparable decrease in the number of bags sent to landfills. In China, where they don’t rely too much on the zeitgeist, a 2008 government ban on thin plastic bags has reduced their use by 66 percent.
There is debate, of course, over whether the whole plastic-bag issue is a red herring, an environmental matter so minor (unless you happen to be a sea turtle) that it’s a distraction from the main concern: the amount of carbon that we collectively spew. “I don’t buy that argument at all,” Hershkowitz says. “We pump out eighty, ninety, million tons of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere every single day. And that’s not just from one source. It is millions of decisions by billions of consumers and millions of companies. There’s no silver bullet that will solve the problem.” What’s necessary, he argues, is the multiplier effect of myriad changes. “Everybody is culpable, everybody has to do something.”
What I do is obsess over newspaper-delivery bags. Ultimately, this led me to the Web site of one of the Times’s suppliers, a Dallas-based company called GP Plastics. There I found an online brochure for GP’s newspaper bags. “Born to be Thrown,” the headline says. At the bottom is a picture of an 18-wheeler. “GP’s reliable fleet of trucks covers the United States from coast-to-coast—bringing you high quality poly bags when you need them—on time!” The image of a fleet of trucks hauling poly bags from Texas to New York drives home the point that the useless little plastic bag outside my door is actually a significant piece of the larger carbon puzzle. It’s the thing that connects me, in my pajamas, to the big boys in Copenhagen.