Icing on the Cake


Municipalities, and even entire countries, are working on ways to reduce plastic bag use. They cite serious litter problems, marine pollution and a significant waste of resources as the main reasons for action. The plastics industry counters by pointing out that bags are an extremely small fraction of litter and only one percent of the municipal waste stream. Which is true? Are they a problem or not?

As with many things, it’s all true, sort of. Plastic bags aren’t a big part of urban litter in Toronto (where the studies were done), but they don’t get dubbed the ‘national flower’ of some countries without foundation. They have certainly caused considerable damage to ocean creatures where they are mistaken for food. And many landfill operators can attest to the plastic bag’s amazing ability to catch the wind.

While the bags are only 1% of the waste stream, most of us have our plastic bag stash. Even with extensive use of cloth bags, I still end up with more plastic bags than I can ever reuse. So they cause guilt because they will take energy to recycle (if I happen to have access to a recycling program for them) and they certainly took energy to manufacture.

And it’s work to avoid them. I’m always impressed by sales clerks that ask me “do you need a bag for that?” because it happens so seldom. Mostly I get the folks who give me the weird look when I tell them I have my own bag. And I cause headaches for grocery store clerks because my cloth bags don’t fit their system. There isn’t much encouragement out there for us to reduce plastic bag use.

So they may be only one percent of the waste stream, but they are the percent you see. Besides the plastic bags building up in your house, they are what is blown up against the fence, floating on the ocean and coating the landfill. The icing on a cake is about, what, one percent of the cake too, but it’s the only thing you see.

Consider plastic bags the icing on the trash cake. Not a big part but a visible one.

[Source: August 2007 WasteWatch ]