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OPINION: Deep thoughts on plastic

OPINION: Deep thoughts on plastic

I was planning to solve two or three of the world’s daunting problems this week. But I had a headache, so I’ll only take on one of them: trash. More specifically, those single-use plastic bags that grocery stores give out every time you stop in for some whole-wheat bread, 2-percent milk and Froot Loops.

You see, the state slapped a 10-cent fee on those paper-thin but remarkably strong bags last week, to get us ready for an eventual outright ban. But two of the supermarket chains, Stop & Shop and Big Y, went ahead and got rid of them anyway, offering paper bags or reusable totes instead.

And the first thing I asked myself — as I do, natch, whenever the world turns in a way that fleetingly catches my attention — was: How does this affect Yrs Trly?

Truly, this new law will take some strain off those two drawers in the kitchen that are so stuffed with what must be a five-year supply of those bags that I can barely squeeze any more in.

And of course there’s the fact that, for most of us, these bags really aren’t “single-use” at all; that is, since they’re a perfect fit for so many wastebaskets, lots of them get used in that way.

But I’ll just have to adjust. The big thing is retraining myself. I already have some of those reusable totes, but I never remember to simply keep them in the car trunk instead of in the house, so they’ll always be there when I get to the store. (Duh!) Then again, a couple of the totes I have are full of (you guessed it) single-use plastic bags from the supermarket.

(Apparently those even-filmier bags they provide for bakery and produce items are exempt. Whew!)

Anyway, it’s said that we Americans go through 100 billion plastic bags a year, and a lot of them must come from the grocery store. Yes, they’re bad. They’re ugly, for one thing. Nothing says “trashy” like a plastic grocery bag flapping in the breeze. And they’re everywhere. They escape from trash barrels and blow around. They get into the waterways and the oceans, where they kill lots of marine life. Even in our landfills, they give off harmful substances while taking centuries to break down.

Still, I have questions.

Some stores are offering paper bags as an alternative, but is that really progress? Compared to plastic, how much energy does it take to make a paper bag? How much carbon is involved? And is this recycled paper — or does it mean some trees will no longer be taking in carbon dioxide because they’ve been turned into paper bags?

And, once the stores stop giving out the plastic grocery bags, won’t people start buying a lot more garbage bags, which are made of thicker plastic, which means they’re going to take more centuries to break down?

By the time New York City shut down the Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, it was said to be the largest man-made structure on Earth, bigger than the Great Wall of China. Which might suggest that we can’t landfill our way out of our national trash problem.

The bag ban may help, but it seems I haven’t solved any problems after all. Oh, well.

Reach Glenn Richter at