The Cost of Convenience

As college students with busy lives, the crises confronting our natural environment may feel overwhelming and out of our control. Though not everyone can be highly engaged in environmental activism, we can all take simple steps to reduce our individual environmental impacts.

Photos by Benjamin Swift

Single-use carryout plastic and paper bags are a convenience provided by most grocery stores across the United States. The Wall Street Journal found that, thanks to their low prices and ubiquity in stores, Americans use and dispose of 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year. That’s about 190 thousand recycled bags per minute. Less than 5 percent of those are recycled. Plastic grocery bags are typically used only for the short amount of time it takes for consumers to carry them to their cars and bring the groceries into their homes. Though some bags may be reused, the vast majority end up in a landfill or blowing in the wind like a tumbleweed. Once exposed to sunlight in nature, plastic bags photodegrade, breaking down into miniscule toxic bits, contaminating soil and waterways. Plastic particles enter the food web when animals ingest them. Larger organisms ingest smaller organisms and the biologically harmful characteristics of plastics are magnified as the materials ascend the food chain, eventually to humans.

In addition to the post-consumer detrimental effects, the production of both plastic and paper bags requires a significant amount of energy and materials. To satisfy Americans’ insatiable appetite for plastic bags, 12 million barrels of oil are used every year to manufacture our supply of them. Paper bags are hardly an improvement; it takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. Moreover, paper bag production requires 17 times as much water as that of plastic bags, and results in 17 times as much waterborne waste—including hazardous chemicals. Finally, 14 million trees were cut down in 1999 to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year. Regardless of the material, non-reusable bags are environmentally harmful both during production and after use.

Communities around the globe have responded accordingly, with 172 towns and cities in the U.S.—including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Breckenridge, Colo.—as well as entire countries, such as France, introducing legislation regulating the use of disposable bags. Residents and visitors quickly learn to bring their own reusable bags. Though actually making these reforms may seem daunting, they are actually more achievable than it may seem. For instance, I led a successful campaign to ban plastic bags in my hometown of Crested Butte, Colo., which also culminated in the formation of a non-profit that continues to promote waste reduction.

Fortunately, as students who wish to preserve the awe-inspiring environment in which we recreate, there are easy steps we can take to become part of the solution. Though Colorado Springs does not have disposable bag regulations, we can still take initiative by bringing our own reusable bags to the store, or packing groceries in a backpack. Considering the environmental challenges our world faces, we should feel obligated to take the lead and be the change.

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