“Feed me that plastic bag!,” said no one. “Break it up really small and let me breathe it!” Again, no one. But this is where we find ourselves — with plastic in our food supply; the air, rain, wind, and snow; the nooks and crannies of our national parks; and permeating our great lakes and oceans. And this past week, new studies show that business as usual has us on track to triple ocean plastic in 20 years.
Heeding immense pressure from customers and environmental groups, Target, Walmart, and CVS announced they are teaming up to find an alternative to the disposable plastic bag over the next three years. They joined with New York investment firm “Closed Loop Partners” and committed funds. According to Closed Loop Partners, Kroger and Walgreens also joined. Given the gravity of the current situation, these retailers need to not only look for a potential innovative future solution but solve this problem today.
Solving the problem today is simple. As many entire countries require and as stores like Costco already do, these retailers can stop providing plastic bags. People can bring their own bags, or if they have a vehicle, cart their goods to bag or box there. Nearly everyone owns some type of carrier bag and, because they already exist, these bags have no additional environmental cost to make. Strong reusable bags can also be made of existing discarded materials. With these major retailers on board, this solution will bring the flow of more than 300 billion plastic bags in the U.S. over a three-year period (the time period the group is giving to consider solutions) to a trickle. Laid end-to-end, these 300 billion bags could circle the equator 4,000 times.
In a search for other long-term solutions, much care is needed. Disposable solutions are fraught with environmental pitfalls. Biodegradable bags break down well in industrial compost facilities but give off potent greenhouse gases in a landfill, perpetuating climate change. Partially or wholly recycled plastic bags have an environmental cost of production and perpetuate plastic use. Paper bags are resource intensive to make and give off greenhouse gases as they decompose.
At the expense of the planet, the plastic industry has worked hard to try to convince us that plastic is clean and healthy. It has promoted the “recyclability” of plastic, though there is little to no market for most recycled plastic (as virgin plastic is cheaper). To capitalize on fears surrounding COVID-19, the plastic industry lobbied for gains in public policy by making unfounded claims about the “health and safety benefits” of plastic (though the virus lasts longer on plastic) by using studies funded by themselves. The motivation is easy to understand. Plastic is made of fossil fuels, which have seen shrinking markets in traditional spaces. With more efficient cars and progress in solar and other alternative forms of energy, plastic is the growth area for oil.
Despite vast evidence that plastic is not compatible with a clean planet for future generations of customers, retailers have been reluctant to change their practices. Plastic bags are cheap, uniform and simple to pack, easy to brand, and take up little space. Even now, while expressing the need for change, the promise currently being made by these retailers is for change three years from now.
Customers are calling for change now. The largest environmental petition on change.org over this past year is a petition to Target asking it to drastically reduce plastic in stores, starting with plastic bags. More than 541,000 Target customers have signed it. Customers find it impossible to avoid plastic with plastic packaging covering nearly every product in stores. Coupled with the sea of plastic bags at checkout, they often feel no bit of personal effort can possibly matter.
Target, Walmart and CVS have pledged to end their use of disposable plastic bags. Their leadership can bring monumental change. But, a three-year delay and any false solutions will set us back at a critical time. We need real change starting now with the simple decision to stop providing plastic bags.
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