Please, Someone Force Me to Stop Using Plastic Bags

Can Philly's green activists be tougher than City Council?

The last time (the only time?) a plastic bag was seen as hauntingly beautiful—as a stand-in, even, for exquisite moments we brush by in our rushed and frantic lives—was in a scene from American Beauty, in which a troubled kid practically cries his eyes out over a bag that “danced” with him for 15 minutes.

Those days are over. Now people just want to get rid of plastic bags. Ban the Bag campaigns have been successful in cities you’d expect—Seattle, Portland, Santa Cruz—but also in places that you’d think would be immune to plaintive cries of fretting environmentalists, like ultra-polluted L.A. and Mexico City. In Chicago, a precocious 12-year-old started a major Ban the Bag campaign that resulted in a recycling bill—albeit not a ban, but a sure first step. [Correction: She got media attention, but no legislation passed.] (Side note: Anyone else find child activists who succeed in making revolution while still in grade school baffling? I used to get tired after a one-hour piano lesson.)

Here in Philly, a campaign is on again: On July 26th, Green Philly bloggers did a full-day push to get people to sign a petition to ban plastic bags here. Their reasons:

• Americans use approximately 100 BILLION plastic bags
• … creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste
• The average U.S. family takes home 1,500 plastic shopping bags
• An estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide
• … which equals more than one million plastic bags used per minute.

Think about those stats—they sound completely ridiculous but we all know from our daily lives that they must be true. Until a couple weeks ago, I used a deep, large cabinet in my kitchen for nothing more than plastic bag storage. When I ran out of space for my own food, I got fed up and pulled all the bags out. It was like a sickening magic trick: What seemed a manageable bundle in the cabinet exploded into a sprawling mass all over my kitchen. I was drowning. I’ll bet you know what I’m talking about.

I trussed them all up into little bundles and put them in my recycling bucket—and then found out they’re not recyclable that way. That is so stupid, I can’t believe it, but at least supermarket bag drops now make sense. So people aren’t just traveling with their recyclables by chance.

This question of bag-banning has come up here before. In 2009, a bill was defeated in City Council. According to Heard in the Hall at the time:

A ban on the use of traditional plastic bags by retail stores failed in City Council today under pressure from the business community and the plastics industry. … Councilman Jim Kenney, a co-sponsor, blamed ShopRite for lobbying against the bill, and encouraged Philadelphians not to shop there. DiCicco accused the plastic bag industry for undermining the bill. “I have never dealt with an industry that has been so manipulative,” DiCicco said on the Council floor.

But that was before online petitions became powerful political tools. The Green Philly Blog petition might actually get attention and reenergize the effort, which would be good. The only drawback to a bag ban, I think, would be for dog owners, who would have to buy more expensive store-bought poop bags. But at least those tend to be biodegradable. And yes, I realize the phrase “poop bags” is almost as unpleasant as overstuffed landfills.

One thing, though: In a world without plastic bags, how will indie auteurs highlight the wonder of everyday beauty in film? My suggestion: discarded SEPTA passes, flipping in the wind like shiny minnows above an ocean of cement.