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Examining Both Sides of the Plastic Bag Issue, Part 1, Or: How My Noisy Night-Owl Grandma Turned Me Green

Examining Both Sides of the Plastic Bag Issue, Part 1, Or: How My Noisy Night-Owl Grandma Turned Me Green

by Red Pill Mama · 2 comments

in Character,Environment,General,Politics+Policy

Dear Red Pill Readers: in honor of Earth Day, we’ve chosen one environmental issue that we believe is a good one for parents to examine in their own households, and which presents a great opportunity to join together with your kids to make a positive change (for the environment, and for yourselves).  We’ll be publishing a 3-part series examining the pros and cons of disposable plastic shopping bags, with some interesting facts you may not have heard before!  Enjoy … RPM

* * *

While for many of us, the disposable plastic shopping bag habit was broken long ago, I live in a place where this is not the norm.  San Francisco may have outright banned them, D.C. may be charging for them, other countries may be taking steps to significantly reduce their use, but in my present little neck of the woods they are very much the norm.  When I’ve asked people I know why they don’t use reusable bags, I typically get one or more of three answers: I don’t want to pay for them, they’re not convenient, and they’re unsanitary — all perfectly understandable reasons.  On the other side — what I take into consideration — there’s the environmental damage caused by them, the environmental damage caused by the process of making them, and the poor example this sets for our kids of accepting take-and-toss consumerism without consequences.

Before I address these concerns, however, I will do what I wish all journalists would do: I will admit my own bias.  Though I have used plenty of these plastic shopping bags in my time (always recycled, of course), I have now sworn them off, and have a nearly physical aversion to them.  This aversion partly stems from the fact that when I, as a sleep-deprived new first-time mom, lived with my intensely beloved grandmother, in her 90s at the time, she used to flip on the hall light outside our bedroom in the wee hours, and rustle around in the numerous plastic shopping bags she stored her old lady stuff in, sounding like a foraging animal.  It was excruciating – I would lie there thinking, “Is it ever going to stop?”  Later I found out what many of these bags were full of: more bags!  But to this day, that sound still makes me twitchy.  I give her major props for reusing them, but boy did she consume them!  That experience, combined with everything I know about them now, has led me to my current state of “just say no” to the bag.  I also recycle (primarily because my mom was doing it in the 70s), I considered gas mileage as a major factor in my last car purchase, and I have been known in the past — given the right equipment — to compost (I left my beloved composter at my last house, and my garden is suffering for it).  So now you know where I’m coming from.

However, I’m also the co-#1 proponent of Red Pill Parenting (and Red Pill Living) which ultimately requires these steps: 1) stop and look at what you’re doing, 2) understand the ramifications of your impending decision upon yourself, your kids, others, and the environment, and 3) understand what your impending decision models for your kids.  This means that no matter what — as a Red Pill Parent and a journalist — I have to examine all sides.

First: germs.  A Google search on “germs in reusable shopping bags” revealed numerous results, most of which reference the same study, published in May of 2009, which found that 64% of the bags had some form of bacteria, 30% had bacteria counts higher than we’d accept in our drinking water, 40% of the bags had yeast or mold, and some of the bags had an unacceptable presence of coliforms (faecal intestinal bacteria).  If that’s as far as you’re going to go, then yes, there’s your microbial evidence.  You may now confidently scoff at your enviro-nut neighbors and return to your plastic bags.  However, as with many studies, they are put together by human beings who work for organizations who have a vested interest in the outcome of the study.  In this case, EPIC, a committee of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (now read that again, please) is behind the study.  Their vested interest is in continued high consumption of plastics.  Studies also have methodology: how many bags were tested? where were they tested?  what were they testing for?  how were things measured?  Though I cannot find the actual study itself or the press release (the CPIA has apparently taken the study down, though it still provides a link to it in its site search results, and their press release archive only goes back to July 2009), and so cannot answer all of those questions, The Consumerist reported this:

To reach their conclusion, the plastics industry studied 25 bags.

… coliform isn’t an indicator of really anything in a shopping bag. It’s a great indicator of water quality, but not great for food (coliforms are all over the place, including on produce). And mean relatively nothing.

The lack of real data is probably why it was reported in CFU/ml (a water measurement — pretty hard to tell what a ml of a shopping bag represents). The most telling data was that no generic E. coli or Salmonella was found.

Not the best methodology design. Or reporting of results.

So: a whopping 25 bags were tested (I wonder where, and whose bags?).  They found a bacteria that is basically all over the place (and bacteria in general, is all over the place: your body, your hands, your refrigerator), but not the two food-borne microbes that we know to cause sickness (E. coli and salmonella).  They measured the results in liquid terms, even though we’re not going to be drinking our bags.

Unfortunately, other news outlets swallowed the CPIA’s press release hook line and sinker.  If you read Canada’s National Post coverage, or even this amateur knee-jerk overreaction on NBC New York, you would naturally think that these are trusted sources of information that should therefore be believed.  (<soapbox> The NBC New York writer’s byline says she’s a “Food Safety Expert,” and I suspect that means she gets paid for her work.  Too bad so many trained journalists who don’t include “Ugh.  Gross.” in their news stories and can’t read between the lines of a press release are out of work.  </soapbox>)  I hope I’ve at least shown the holes in the study.  At best, I hope I’ve shown you how to “consider the source” of information, realize that your opinion can be manipulated, and understand that the truth often takes a bit of thinking — and sometimes a bit of digging.

Now stay tuned for Part 2: Rethinking Cost and Convenience, and Part 3: The Good News, Plus Cute Reusables for Your Kids.

Please take the Red Pill Poll!

Red Pill Mama

{ 2 trackbacks }

Plastic Bags, Part 2: Rethinking Cost and Convenience
April 20, 2010 at 11:08 pm
Plastic Bags, Part 3: The Good News, Plus Cute Reusables for Your Kids
April 22, 2010 at 11:09 pm

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