Rolling Stone (of which I am a big fan) has an article on the subject of plastic bags, including some daunting statistics: the world consumes 1 million plastic bags every minute, and Americans use 102 billion every year. While 500 billion plastic bags every year is an outrageous figure, and the plastic bag is a particularly egregious and permanent form of trash, it’s only one of hundreds of kinds of permanent trash that we produce every year.
There is an active, well-funded and continuous movement to maintain our trash productivity. Last year in California, there was an effort in the legislature by a number of environmental organizations, legislatures, and the governor (Schwarzenegger) to ban plastic bags state-wide. Ostensibly this ban exists in San Francisco, although you wouldn’t know it by the profligate use of plastic in this city. The legislative measure went down in flames at the last minute, thanks to extreme lobbying efforts on the part of plastics industry groups, notably the American Chemistry Council. Hopefully environmental groups will regird themselves and push this through in the future.
However: I like to keep my eye a bit ahead of the ball (which is why I suck at baseball). So, I’d like to suggest two laws that I think would do a lot to make our trash situation manageable (that is, virtually nonexistent).
1. Uniform Packaging law – This means that package design should be done with an eye towards recyclability. Packaging should be made of single materials that can be recycled as a unit – that is, nothing like the dreaded Tetra Paks, which, being made of paper laminated with polyethylene and lined with aluminum, are exceedingly difficult to recycle. Packaging should also be minimized – no triple-wrapping things in layers of plastic for no reason at all. I’ve always had a beef with the Japanese about this. Also, my books don’t need to be shrink-wrapped to a piece of cardboard when they arrive from Amazon.
2. Guaranteed Recycling law – This is the more draconian one, which specifies that any manufacturer has to provide means for recycling their product down to harmless components, either themselves or via a third-party service. This means everything – batteries, cellphones, egg cartons, bicycle frames, etc. The consumer will probably be made to bear the additional cost, but it would also mean that manufacturers will be forced to consider the decomposability of their products, and hopefully bring their design around to match.
This might seem like a heavy-handed way to deal with trash, but ultimately it’s the only reasonable way (other than, maybe, vaporizing it with a plasma torch) – we have to stop manufacturing things that are difficult to get rid of. In general, we need to think about who – and what – will bear the costs of our production, of our activity, not just until we get paid for our effort, but until the ends of existence.