Here's Something: In praise of plastic bags

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As much as some argue a statewide ban on so-called “single-use” plastic bags would help Maine’s environment, ban proponents fail to talk truthfully about one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century.

Plastic bags, the kind you get at the grocery store with the clever built-in handles, are neither single-use nor morally evil, as some allege. Despite the bags’ many benefits, Maine lawmakers are contemplating taking them away from us.

Some say the plastic bags end up in trees, blowing in the wind. I actually saw such a scene the other day and it occurred to me that, to the contrary, I rarely see plastic bags aloft in trees, despite the myth.

I rarely also see plastic bags in the ocean, although every other kind of plastic can be found there. I concede this is a problem, especially when fish eat them. A defeatist bag ban, however, is not the answer. Technological innovations, by either creating a less harmful plastic or increasing removal efforts, are better answers.

We are definitely living in The Plastic Age, and there’s quantifiable collateral damage. What extreme environmentalists fail to recognize, however, are all the environmental and hygienic positives plastics, and especially plastic bags, bring to our everyday lives.

First off, describing the kind of plastic bag offered at grocery and department stores as “single-use” is a deliberate misleading misnomer. Most people re-purpose the bags for a multitude of uses.

Just the other night, for example, I noticed a Ziploc bag containing thawing meat had sprung a leak in my refrigerator. I quickly reached for a Hannaford bag and nestled the offending leaker inside. Plastic bags saved my home environment that day from a bloody mess.

Additionally, plastic bags indirectly protect my house from disgusting rodents. Plastic bags get new life in many households like mine as cat litter receptacles. I get about a week’s worth of cat poop per bag. That bag then goes into the trash. No muss, no fuss. I’m not sure I’d have cats without such an effective way to deal with their excrement.

Also, plastic bags work wonders in medical emergencies. I had a professor once tell my class that if we’re ever in need of sterile gloves to perform first aid, don the plastic bags you receive at the store. They’ll work in a pinch, she said, because they’re manufactured in an ultra-clean environment. Wise words I hope I’ll never have to heed.

Try doing any of these things with a relatively inferior paper bag – even paper manufactured in Maine, I hate to say. Paper bags fail quickly and completely when introduced to liquid. Heavy loads fall through their bottoms, sometimes comically. And they rip when you pick them up from their flimsy tops.

The newfangled “sustainable and reusable” bags aren’t much better. Their stitched cloth handles break, and they develop dangerous microbial infestations. A recent article in The New York Times quoted a study that found shoppers would have to reuse a cloth bag 131 times to outweigh the environmental impact of manufacturing a “single-use” plastic bag. Good luck with that. I used a “reusable” bag about five times before a torn handle rendered it useless.

I remember grocery shopping before plastic bags. Paper bags weren’t sustainable; their lifespan was nasty, brutish and short. Do we really want to relive those times?

Plastic bags are neither single-use, nor are they bad for the environment. In fact, they aid in cleanliness. We’d be foolish to ban such safe and effective technology.

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