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Everyday Environmentalist

Paper or Plastic? Neither!

"If you don’t consume something in the first place, you reduce the impact in two places: production and disposal."

Leigh Ann Evans is the Web Systems Specialist for The Nature Conservancy.

By Leigh Ann Evans

We all know these words well: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. But my favorite part of that is “reduce.” If you reduce consumption of a product, then from the get-go you reduce its impact in two places: production and disposal.

Take, for example, plastic bags. As a step in the reduction direction, my family has zeroed in on our use of plastic bags. We try never to use them — especially the shopping and produce variety. It is a simple step we take to help our planet — not to mention how nice it was to rid ourselves of the smooshed-up ball of plastic bags we weren’t reusing!

There are some pretty compelling reasons to stop using plastic bags:

  • Less than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled in the U.S. each year.
  • During the 2009 International Coastal Cleanup, plastic bags were the second most common item collected, making up 11% of all the garbage collected.
  • Each year, approximately 100,000 sea turtles and other marine animals are harmed or killed by plastic in our oceans.
  • I won’t go into detail about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the newer Atlantic Garbage Patch, but you can read more about them. Scary stuff!
Just Do It

So how do we do it? I invested in canvas bags and they have lasted for years. You can also get really inexpensive reusable shopping bags almost anywhere these days. While not as sturdy as the canvas bags, the ones I have purchased have lasted for several years so far.

I also bought reusable mesh bags for when I shop for produce, although I’ve started to realize that I often don’t even need those! I really don’t need to keep my apples separate from my oranges until I get home and put them in the fruit bowl.

If I do need to keep things airtight, I do sometimes purchase heavier plastic storage bags, but I reuse them for years until they fall apart. You also can reuse the bags that sliced bread comes in for produce!

Shop ‘Til You Drop

When I go to the mall, I bring my own bag in which I carry all of my purchases. If I forget to bring one with me, I get a bag with my first purchase and put everything else I can fit into that first bag. (OK, I don’t really like to go to the mall, but my teenage girls do — and I’m managing to teach them this habit!)

Old Habits Die Hard

Even after all of my work on reducing our use of plastic bags, I still manage to end up places without my reusable bags. But I have realized that most of the time I don’t need a bag at all! When the cashier asks, “Paper or Plastic?” I reply, “Neither!” and I carry my few loose items. How many times have you bought one or two items that get put into a shopping bag you didn’t really need? It’s such a habit, we don’t even think about it. But we should.

I’m not perfect. I do still end up with single-use bags in my house, and we still use plastic garbage bags. But we try to limit our garbage by composting and recycling.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent those of The Nature Conservancy.

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