Bag (Ac)counting

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Here’s a quick mental exercise: How many reusable bags do you own? Do they make it into the store with you on your various shopping excursions?

For many years, my family had a small supply of reusable bags that we had divided between our cars so that we would have them on hand when running errands. But in the past few years, the number of reusable bags we own has increased probably 10-fold.

Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate the various events and organizations that we support offering their goods and wears in reusable bags versus disposable ones. It demonstrates a growing consciousness about the wastefulness of disposable products and sends a subtle conservation message. But how effective are these reusable bags at curbing the use of disposable bags, and ultimately, the growing environmental impact?

Reducing the use of “single use” disposable bags is not a recent issue. It has come up in many jurisdictions across the region, including in the Maryland General Assembly. It surfaced again most recently as a “Bag Ban” passed by the Baltimore City Council but vetoed by the Mayor.

The impacts of plastic bags on local ecology are multifaceted: stream and river pollution, green house gas emissions, resource depletion and litter aesthetics. By some calculations, plastic bags make up almost half of local litter. The next time you walk outside, take a glance into the closest storm drains, culverts, streams, landscaping or vegetation. More likely than not, you’ll see plastic bags, a testament to the prolific — but unnecessary — use.

It is important to note that both paper and plastic single-use bags have severe environmental repercussions. In the United States, four out of five grocery bags used are plastic, which requires 12 billion barrels of oil each year to produce. However, paper bags require four times more energy to produce than plastic and generate 70 percent more air pollution and 50 percent more water pollution during production.

Both fees and bans have been used in hundreds of jurisdictions across the country with varying success, but all have resulted in a decreased consumption of disposable bags.

While it’s not law (yet) here, there are many ways that we can all pitch in to reduce the waste associated with disposable bags:

> Put reusable bags in your car and remember to bring them with you when you go shopping.

> Dispose of your plastic bags responsibly. I look for locales that offer on-site recycling.

> Not every purchased item needs a bag. I often refuse bagging for large items, especially if they have handles, such as gallon milk jugs or many bulk-packaged items.

If your stock of reusable bags is plentiful, offer to share. Establishing a reusable bag donation station in convenient areas can offer a solution for those who do not have reusable bags on hand. That’s one great way to (ac)count for our bags while creating healthier communities.

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