Plastic sucks, but what to do about it?
By Adam Tatelman, Staff Writer
I don’t have to tell anyone the myriad rationales behind the concept of recycling. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t recycle in this day and age. It’s just generally accepted as “the thing to do.” On the other hand, the first world still generates staggering mounds of garbage on a daily basis. This problem could be fixed if the practice of recycling were expanded beyond its current purview.
Let’s take a look at a typical shopping trip in my family. I should mention that we are rather conservative shoppers, avoiding the majority of processed, packaged, or preserved foods, and are mostly in favour of fresh produce. This should have the result of reducing our garbage production by a fair fraction, but despite our best efforts, we still seem to generate an inordinate amount of useless plastic.
First, we hit the bulk food aisle. Everything there gets a plastic bag and a twist tie: nuts, dried fruit, etc. So do fruits and vegetables, from bananas to bok choy. Some produce, like grapes, already comes in a perforated bag but then gets bagged again. Then there are the clamshell packages for berries and tomatoes, plastic water bottles, and cardboard juice boxes, not to mention BPA-lined tin cans for beans and fish, or flamboyant cereal boxes with plastic bags inside them.
I haven’t even gotten to toiletries, but let’s bring what we’ve got to the checkout and put it in more plastic bags—huge ones, whose only purpose is to transport the food from the store to our house, then stretch and rip at the handles. I understand that we have to package food for transportation, but canvas bags haven’t caught on here like they have in the UK because disposable plastic bags are still too conveniently available. Hence, people still prefer them.
Here’s my three-step plan for retailers to reduce garbage from grocery shopping. First, give everyone a big-ass cardboard box with your store logo on it. Tell them to use it every time they shop at your store. Voilà—no more plastic bags. If customers still want to use the plastic bags, charge them for it.
Secondly, to discourage purchase of excessively packaged foods and plastic bags alike, add a five-cent “recycling tax” surcharge to all packaged items, including plastic bags from checkout. This will encourage people to buy more fresh produce and rely on the aforementioned store-branded box, which is healthier for both the customer and the environment.
Finally, expand the scope of all recycling depots. Currently, the majority of recycled items are water bottles, juice cartons, and liquor bottles, and most everything else goes to the landfill. Instead, we should push through the use of refundable deposits, the recycling of tin cans, clamshell packages, milk cartons, cereal boxes, twist ties, elastic bands, and bar code stickers. This will incentivize people to “cash in their bounty” and earn back their recycling tax.
The only way to solve most problems is to pay for a solution. Human beings are creatures of habit and self-interest. Even if only in five-cent increments, we would create efficient, better-funded recycling depots, less garbage in local landfills, healthier customers, and less hassle when shopping.