Plastic Bags & the Environment Essay

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5 billion pounds is up 2.3% from December 2006. Angier lists all the plastic-based materials around her desk at the Times and in her personal life, including her computer keyboard, credit card, telephones, her motorcycle helmet, luggage, earrings, for starters. Plastics also pad mattresses, "elasticize our comfort-fit jeans, suture our wounds, plug our dental cavities, encapsulate our pills, replace our lost limbs, lighten our cars and jets" and much more (Angier).

The city of San Francisco banned "traditional plastic bags" in November 2007, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle (Buchanan, 2007). "People are used to getting free bags and thinking there is no real consequence to them," said Jack Macy, recycling coordinator for San Francisco's Department of the Environment. "But there is a cost," Macy went on. Part of the cost to city of San Francisco -- where about 180 million plastic bags were handed out annually at retail and grocery stories -- is the "litter on city streets" (Buchanan, 2007). That litter consists of plastic bags on the streets, clogging storm drains, harming wildlife and other contamination. Oakland has passed a similar ban on plastic bags, Buchanan writes. Enforcement of this ban will consist of a $100 fine for the first violation, $200 for a second violation and $500 for each incidence of passing out plastic bags to customers after that (Buchanan, 2007).

The San Francisco ban project was originally postponed as supervisors looked at a proposal to charge a fee "for each bag used by shoppers" but that idea "never got off the ground, Buchanan explains. Meanwhile the California Grocers Association lobbied the California Legislature against the idea of charging grocers for each bag handed out, and legislation was indeed passed and signed by the governor, barring municipalities from imposing a charge. In South Australia, a plastic bag ban was enacted in May of 2009, the fist state in Australia to ban plastic. The ban in South Australia is expected to greatly reduce the estimated 400 million bags that annually wind up in landfills, the article in ABC News (May 4, 2009) reports.

The Australian Retailers Association (ARA) took a hard line against the ban, the article continues, suggesting the ban on plastic bans "…will increase the risk of contamination and could pass infection onto employees." This assertion is based on the belief that reusable bags will be "exposed to different foods and could lead to health issues," Richard Evans, executive director of the ARA, said. Evans claims that "Meats and chicken et cetera and fish into one bag and that following week it could be in fact used with vegetables or fresh fruit or whatever it might be…there's hygiene issues associated with that," hence his concern about health issues, Evans insisted (ABC News, 2009).

Solutions to the blight caused by plastic bags. Clearly the reusable cotton shopping bag -- or reusable bags of other materials, some of which are petroleum-based -- offers a logical alternative for shoppers who can no longer get their items place in a plastic bag. Type "reusable cotton shopping bags" into Google and 74,500 links are available; type "reusable grocery shopping bags" into Google and 203,000 URLs pop up. Not all of those links of course are ideal for the person seeking alternatives to plastic, but the point is that people are looking for workable alternatives to plastic, either because they have caught on to the green theme running through main street America, or because they can't get plastic and don't like paper bags.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the most effective and respected environment organizations in the U.S., took a legal stand against the avalanche of plastic trash in 1999, according to The New York Times (Hohn, 2008). The NRDC sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "for permitting municipalities to pollute watersheds around Los Angeles," Hohn writes. That lawsuit forced the County of Los Angeles to "comply with stricter total maximum daily loads, or T.M.D.L.'s," which is the local pollution limits that the EPA places on a waterway in a city under the Clean Water Act, according to Hohn's article. The lawsuit succeeded in changing how the EPA looks at trash; in fact trash is now considered a pollutant, and the suit's results will require Los Angeles County to "reduce the amount of solid waste [including plastic and plastic bags] escaping into its rivers and creeks from 4.5 million pounds a year to zero by 2016" (Hohn, 2008).

Solutions, Continued: Ethical concepts and consumer behavior: how to get people to bring their own bags to the grocery store. It is all well and good to assume that taking plastic bags away from retail and grocery stories will lead to changed consumer habits, but there is more to consider than a dearth of bags. Indeed, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Business Ethics (Chan, et al. 2008), the authors researched general ethics and social psychology literature and presented a model to "…delineate the major factors likely to affect consumers' intentions to bring their own shopping bags" when making shopping trips to grocery stores. The model, "Bring your own bags" (BYOB) was "empirically validated" through a survey published in the article with 250 Chinese consumers (Chan 469).

This study was conducted in China for specific reasons, Chan explains. First, at least "half" of the world's ten most polluted cities are in China; second, China is the world's largest producer of "ozone-depleting substances" and the second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions (Chan 470). Clearly, China needs to address its environmental problems, and Chinese consumers' use of reusable bags is a good launching point. Thirdly, China's retail and grocery stores (convenience stores as well) hand out an average of "2 billion plastic bags daily" according to Chan's data. The two billion bags a day have led to "white pollution" on streets and everywhere in China; and these bags will take 200 years to decompose if they are placed in landfills, albeit many of the won't make it to landfills.

Meanwhile, Chan's research shows that in general, Chinese people are practical people, and they "often make reference to their own concrete experiences, and tend to highly value utilitarian ways of thinking" (Chan 472). In fact Chan's research shows that Chinese people have a "stronger tendency than their American counterparts to evaluate ideas according to practical values" (Chan 472).

Without going deeply into the specific empirical details of how Chan went about the study with his two colleagues, his results are presented in this paper as valid. Forty-eight percent of the 250 Chinese respondents were male and 65% were married. The median age was 30-39 years, which Chan notes (475) is very similar to the demographic characteristics of Beijing population as a whole. And while only 13% of the entire population of Beijing has received a college-level degree (or better), about 28% of the respondents in Chan's study had a college degree.

The bottom line in this study -- one can glean Chan's results only after pouring through a thicket of esoteric charts and graphs and equations -- is that "Chinese consumers who perceive the BYOB practice to be more important are more likely to rely on BYOB ethical judgment to derive the corresponding behavioral intention" (Chan 479).

Stated in more lay-friendly narrative, Chan's survey shows that the Chinese government "needs not only to educate the general public through various media (e.g., TV advertisements, exhibitions), but also to strengthen the delivery of environmental education at all levels within its formal educational system" (Chan 479). In time, doing these things that Chan suggests will help young people in China "internalize the ideology of environmental protection" and also help youth to "nurture a set of enduring eco-friendly consumption habits" (Chan 479). Chan also expects that a "utilitarian approach" (i.e. emphasizing the consequences of BYOB practice) may represent an "effective means for the Chinese government to promote the adoption of consumer BYOB practice" (Chan 479).

Chan expects that after completing his research of the results, it can be clearly stated, "…among Chinese consumers, teleological evaluation is the single most important factor that directly affects the formation of BYOB ethical judgment and intention" (Chan 478).

Conclusion: By "teleological" Chan is referring to pragmatism, and what this all boils down to is that if consumers in China -- or presumably anywhere -- are convinced that it is a better idea to eschew the use of plastic bags for the greater good of the society, they will likely switch to reusable bags. The great challenge in this matter is encouraging political and community leaders to help bring the information to citizens that plastic bags are harmful to the planet. This will not be an easy task -- and just taking the bags away from grocery stories is not offering a fully developed justification -- because old habits are hard to break. So perhaps starting with young people in grammar school and middle school is…[continue]

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