By Michele S. Byers
As we head into the holiday season, we come face-to-face with a dirty little secret: plastic bags and over-packaging. Why not join the BYO Bag movement this holiday season and shop sustainably?
It’s hard to get an exact number, but people use an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags each year globally. When we’re in the throes of holiday shopping, juggling complicated gift lists and planning dinner menus, we’re less likely to account for the additional bags and packaging ultimately destined for the landfill. The California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery estimated in 2009 that a million extra tons of waste are generated each week between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day!
A lot of holiday “stuff” will be toted from store to car, car to home, and house to house in single-use plastic bags. They are ubiquitous, convenient and relatively cheap. But the indirect costs – the environmental impacts – should convince you to bring your own bags when shopping.
It’s estimated that a plastic bag takes around 1,000 years to biodegrade in a landfill. Because there are so many bags and they last so long, plastic bag litter has become a global epidemic. Just look at the debris washed up along any stream after a significant rain storm and chances are you’ll see several plastic bags. You’ll also see them everywhere from beaches to parking lots – even on preserved lands.
Plastic bags can break apart in just 20 years, but they don’t truly biodegrade. Instead, they break down into smaller and smaller particles of the same material. These particles contaminate soil and water and make their way up the food chain to wildlife and ultimately into our bodies. Marine life is particularly vulnerable because these floating plastic bag particles look just like food.
These hidden costs have sparked the movement toward reusable bags. Most major grocery stores, and even many chain retailers, now offer reusable bags.
Conservation-minded small businesses and grassroots citizens groups are getting involved as well. For example, Sustainable Princeton has been working with a broad coalition of community members, scouts, schools and local merchants on a BYOBag campaign to decrease the distribution of single-use plastic bags and encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.
“The motto of our campaign is, ‘Change a habit and change the world.’ Small behavior changes on our part can have a big impact,” said Sophie Glovier, chair of the BYOBag campaign. Find out more from the website http://sustainableprinceton.org/category/byobag .
It’s important to note that many reusable bags are made from synthetic materials like nylon. They don’t biodegrade at the end of their life cycle, either.
To completely avoid plastics, look for cloth bags made from natural fibers, like organic cotton, bamboo and linen. They will serve you well, and at the end of their life cycle they will truly biodegrade. As an added bonus, they’re washable.
If you’re into fashion, cloth bags come in a huge variety of colors, patterns and styles. Why not give attractive cloth shopping bags as gifts this year?
The Envirosax website (www.envirosax.com ) offers more quick facts about the problem of plastic bag pollution, as well as an idea of how fun and stylish reusable bags can be. There are plenty of other reusable bag makers too, some of whom work exclusively in natural fibers.
It’s a perfect time to pick up a new habit: BYOB – that’s “bag” not “booze.” Of course, if you’re bringing the eggnog to a holiday party, carry it in your own reusable bag!
And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.