On December 19, 2011 the Seattle City Council passed a ban on plastic bags, and a short time later the mayor of Seattle, Mike McGinn, signed this bill into law. Banning plastic bags is quickly gaining momentum and similar bans have been put into place in San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR, and Brownsville, TX. Most cities with bans in place have outlawed plastic bags in grocery and drug stores. What sets Seattle's ban apart is that it forbids disposable plastic bags in all grocery and retail stores, so department, clothing, convenience, and home-improvement stores in Seattle will have to stop using plastic bags come July 1. In addition to the plastic bag ban, Seattle's new law also levies a 5-cent fee on paper bags. This fee is intended to encourage shoppers to bring reusable shopping bags when they shop and it will be used to reimburse retailers for stocking paper bags.
The ban has been a hot topic in Seattle. Opponents claim the ban is oppressive and that reusable bags are potentially dangerous, bacteria breeding grounds. Those in favor of the ban cite that only 13% of disposable bags put into circulation in their city are recycled. That leaves the remaining 87%, or roughly 252 million plastic bags unaccounted for. The exact breakdown is not known, but it is safe to say that some of these disposable bags will find their way to landfills after they find a second life lining a garbage can or cleaning up while walking the dog. Some bags may not even get a second chance and will go straight in the trash once the groceries are put away. Regardless, disposal bags do not belong in landfills; it can take generations for plastic bags to breakdown and in the meantime they collect standing water which creates the ideal conditions for mosquito larva, leading to a slew of possible health hazards. Unfortunately, plastic bags ending up in a landfill may be a lesser evil of all possible outcomes. If plastic bags are not recycled or tossed into a landfill they probably end up discarded as litter. Once the lightweight bags are picked up by the wind they can be transported to bodies of water or other habitats where they can entangle animals and wreak environmental havoc.
Reusable grocery bags are the logical solution. Reusable shopping bags can be made from cotton, jute, bamboo, polyester, and a number of other materials. Many reusable grocery bags are made from polypropylene which itself is made from recycled plastic bottles. The sturdy construction of reusable eco-friendly bags oftentimes allows one reusable bag to do the job of several disposable bags, so you can carry more groceries in fewer trips. Many reusable bags also have comfortable shoulder straps that make light work of carrying heavy groceries.
One of the main criticisms charged against reusable grocery bags is that when items in the bag leak and the material is soiled it becomes a safe-haven for bacteria, and before you know it you and your family will become ill, and as long as you continue to use bacteria-infested bags you will contaminate food brought into your home. There have been many studies conducted on this topic and the findings are often presented in a misleading fashion. Bacteria are everywhere. Yes, bacteria can take hold of reusable bags, but it can do the same in disposable bags which many people repurpose, and therefor run the risk of cross-contamination. Unlike disposable bags, reusable bags can be cleaned, and you should clean your reusable bags on a regular basis. You clean your kitchen counters and the shelves in your refrigerator and any other surface in your home that routinely comes into contact with uncooked food whether packaged or not, so it makes sense that you also clean your reusable bags.
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of Burien, WA, Seattle's neighbor to the west, is looking to implement Seattle's ban at a state level. If this ban were to become a state law it would make Washington the first state to ban the use of disposable plastic bags in retail stores. Those who support the ban understand they have an uphill battle and it may be years before such a ban is officially put into place. Regardless of the political discourse reusable grocery bags are a smart and environmentally friendly choice. You do not need to wait for your city or state to pass a law to stop using disposable plastic bags. Start carrying reusable, eco-friendly bags today and become a steward of the environment.