OPINION | It’s time to bring back single-use plastics

It’s been two years since our federal government banned what they called single-use plastics, but you could have fooled me.

After a recent trip to one of our local grocers, I got home and pulled a loaf of bread and some tortilla wraps from my reusable shopping bags. Both were wrapped in plastic.

The grapes and berries my toddler so enjoys came home in hard plastic shells. The cheese, yogurt, carrots, frozen broccoli, deli meat, and lettuce, were all packaged in plastic, too. The produce we’d picked out, including apples and tomatoes, was stuffed inside clear plastic bags provided by the grocery store. Even the cucumber we’d purchased was sealed inside a layer of clear plastic wrap.

Oh, and the drink I ordered from the drive-thru on the way home came in a clear plastic cup with a clear plastic lid, but don’t worry. I was given a paper straw, so chalk that up as a win for the environment.

Sarcasm aside, if our federal government is sincere about its stated goal to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030, they’ve got a hard road ahead. And much of that road is going to need to be paved with reason and innovation, not bans and mandates.

For instance, the plastic goods banned in 2022 included grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, disposable cutlery, and certain types of takeout containers. But nowhere on that list was the layer of clear plastic wrap on my cucumber which, so far as I can tell, will be used only once and serves no useful purpose. Why were plastic spoons banned and shrink-wrapped produce was not?

Even if the ban was a step in the right direction, grocery bags surely do not belong on a list of single-use plastics; seldom have they ever been used just once. They’re great for packing lunches to take to work or school, for keeping books dry in bags on rainy days, and for picking up after dogs in the backyard.

My family even used to use them as kitchen catchers. We now buy additional plastic bags to collect our kitchen trash rather than reusing the grocery bags we already have. Oh, the irony.

Of course, there are many single-use plastic products that could never be banned; medical supplies are a great example. No one has suggested so far, not even our federal government, that we should transition to paper surgical gloves or try biodegradable blood bags. There’s an element of utility that has to be considered.

Rather than the number of times it can be used, utility should perhaps serve as the real litmus test on whether or not a product gets banned. I’m all for reducing our consumption of plastic, but when no viable alternative to a useful product exists, then any outright ban seems more driven by ideology than reason.

And it’s that lack of viable alternative that I take particular issue with when it comes to plastic shopping bags, because the choices available to us currently don’t make a lot of environmental sense.

Take, for instance, the paper bag. A 2011 research paper produced by the Northern Ireland Assembly noted that it takes four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. And given that paper bags are heavier and bulkier than their plastic counterparts, the carbon footprint resulting from transporting them to retailers is much greater.

Reusable bags don’t fare much better. A 2011 study by the U.K. government found that a cotton tote bag has to be used 131 times before it has a lesser environmental impact than producing one single-use plastic grocery bag, and that’s a real problem.

Reusable shopping bags are flimsy. Cotton totes were not designed to be dragged back and forth to the grocery store hundreds of times. But even if they were, ever gone to the store and accidentally left your reusable bags at home? We’ve all done it. We’re human and we make mistakes.

So what do we do? We buy more reusable bags at the checkout. At this point, my family has collected dozens of them. And the odds of all of our reusable bags getting used 131 times before the next time we forget them is virtually zero. We will inevitably end up buying more.

If doing what’s best for the environment is truly at the heart of this issue, plastic bags ought to be brought back until a better alternative is developed. It’s time, considering the ban on single-use plastics was overturned last fall after it was deemed “unreasonable and unconstitutional” in federal court.

Actually, here’s an even better idea: instead of putting the onus on us, the end consumers, to give up our plastic shopping bags and drinking straws, why not put the focus where it belongs? Why not put pressure on grocery manufacturers and retailers–you know, the corporate folks who are making record profits selling us plastic-coated goods–to sell their products free of plastic packaging in the first place? Or at the very least, a lot less plastic?

I, for one, would much rather unpack my plastic-free groceries from a plastic shopping bag than the opposite. And I know for certain I’m not the only one who’d prefer to drink my beverage through a plastic straw in a paper cup than do it the other way around.

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