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Story Last modified at 10:27 p.m. on Wednesday, January 5, 2011

We should follow Italy's lead and reduce the use of plastic


At the checkout line of a local store a couple of weeks ago, I laid my purchases on the counter, along with my reusable grocery bag just about the time a toddler two aisles away kicked over an entire display of gift cards. In the ensuing chaos, I didn't notice the sales clerk putting my purchases into plastic bags until she had already stashed one or two away.

"I'm sorry, I have a bag," I told her, pointing to the reusable bag lying in front of her.

"Oh," she responded, and then she picked up the plastic bag containing my items and started putting it into the reusable bag.

"No, I don't want the plastic," I said as a matter of clarification.

I earned a blank stare over that one, but she emptied the bag for me.

A week ago, this time at a grocery store, I again brought my bags – just as the store encourages its users to do – and the clerk there insisted on double wrapping some of my purchases in plastic before putting them in my reusable bags.

I appreciated the obvious effort at taking care of my purchases, but again eschewed taking home those irritating, littersome bags.

On New Year's Day, I heard a report on the radio that Italy was banning plastic bags from the entire country, beginning Jan. 1. According to the report, Italians are responsible for a quarter of the plastic-bag consumption use in all of Europe – that's about 20 billion single-use plastic bags.

It seemed like a mighty fine New Year's resolution, getting rid of those bags. Worldwide, consumers use anywhere from 500 billion to 1 trillion of them, and we Americans account for at least 100 billion of them, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

They are, simply, a nuisance, capable of marring a landscape and killing wildlife. Because they don't decompose, they threaten animal and marine life, accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths to whales, turtles, birds and fish, the NPR program said. They can also lead to suffocation – not just animals, but babies and young children as well.

One of the main drawbacks to these bags is that they lead to pollution everywhere, floating in the air, clinging to the corners of buildings, crumpling up in wet puddles in parking lots.

I haven't used plastic bags for years because they simply make no sense. They create litter, are dangerous to animals and young children, and are a waste of petroleum products to make. They're ugly and not very useful at that – ripping at the slightest strain.

In Los Angeles, plastic bags have been banned; in San Francisco they have, too. Our town is a far cry from those big cities, and it may not be practical in our corner of the world to completely get rid of plastic bags – although even here in Alaska, the bags are no longer welcome in such rural communities as Emmonak and Galena – who voted to eliminate them more than five years ago.

Still, maybe we could collectively help reduce our plastic bag footprint, even here in Chugiak-Eagle River. Last week, while at another store, I went to the checkout line to pay for my purchases and the clerk asked, "Do you need a bag for that?"

When I said "No," he replied, "Thank you."

Shop owners could emulate this model, trying on their own to reduce their bag usage – and likely their operating costs as a result. Shoppers can bring their own bags – and they don't have to be the ones you spend 99 cents for at the grocery store. Any big sack will do. And if you like your plastic bags and don't want to even think about getting rid of them? Consider re-using them – at least until they rip – to get a little more life out of them.

The issue of plastic bags and their impact on the environment is not a new argument, but it's a new year, with a big country making a monumental change. And that bodes well for those who want to keep that momentum going.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 5, 2011.