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Tue February 3, 2004
It's in the Bag
The politics of "paper or plastic?"
By Catherine McCall
Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Catherine's commentary.]
Recent pictures confirm the stunning redness of the red planet, Mars, and showcase the ingenuity and technical prowess of NASA scientists. There is no disputing the beauty?and mystery?inherent in such a dramatic landscape. Who among us doesn?t long to reach through the photographs and scrape our fingers along the fine dust, just to see what legacy sits beneath the surface?
It was this same NASA magic that provided us with our first objective glimpses of Earth as it appears from millions of miles away. Ours might be known as the blue and green planet, since the colorful oceans and forests photograph more dramatically than the beige and dingy deserts.
So I?ve wondered--in the spirit of time travel and galaxy tides turning?what a curious space voyager might discover ten thousand years from now, or ten million, about the history of the life on this planet. Eons into the future, when you and I and everyone we ever dreamed of knowing have gone the way of the dust, what will a probe find when it scratches the dust-covered surface of the Earth?
The answer is simple: plastic. More specifically, a plastic bag, like the kind we carry out of stores every day. Their fancy name is polyethylene and we Americans throw away 100 billion of them a year. That?s a lot of bags.
The kicker, though, is that no one knows how long it takes these bags to decompose, so when we bury them they just sit there in the landfill or in the ditch, the toxic ink of their brand names leaking into the soil. Entire generations of people are born and die and still the bags are there.
The polyethylene bag could turn out to be our legacy--not necessarily a human legacy, mind you, but an American one.
Other countries, led by the example of a mighty Ireland, have either banned or taxed these flimsy, water-clogging annoyances. Recognizing both the long-term hazards to such a short-sighted consumer habit, as well as the very real problem of litter, nations like Taiwan and South Africa and Bangladesh have taken action to curb their use. Others, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand are considering making a similar move.
Why don?t we reduce our plastic bag usage here in the United States?
We all know that to even suggest such an idea to our current environmentally-sour administration it would be dismissed as laughable. And yet each of us--Republican, Democrat, Panther and Patriot fan alike--wants clean water and clean air. We all want to leave a legacy of promise and opportunity, if not to future space travelers, then at least to our children and grandchildren.
If we can take pictures on Mars our scientists can figure out how to make an easy-to-use bag that does not harm the environment. We can also--right now, today--make a difference by carrying our own canvas tote bags into stores, at least when we know that what we plan to buy will likely fit in them. And, we can simply request paper instead of plastic, even when the grocery line is long, even though paper bags are a little harder to carry.
When we as American consumers?all two hundred and fifty million of us?take one small step in the direction of preserving our Earth, rest assured the corporations and politicians will come running to catch up, simply because, they won?t want to be left holding the bag.
Catherine McCall is a psychiatrist who lives in Wilmington.