"Paper or plastic?"
It's the question we hear every time we're in the grocery line -- the modern equivalent of "To be or not to be?" It's eternal, never-changing. The bagboy proffers his deceptively simple riddle. You have two possible responses. Choose one. But it's a trap, the sound of one hand bagging, a Zen koan without a "correct" answer -- unless it's "No."
Plastic bags are made from oil. Paper bags are made from trees. So the question really is: Which resource do you prefer to destroy for the purpose of carrying home your bread and cheese and Grape-Nuts? There are dozens of organizations and Web sites devoted to this dilemma. Millions upon millions of dollars are spent making paper and plastic bags. An equal number of millions are spent hauling them to our landfills and picking them up off our streets and out of storm drains.
Recycling is one answer, but most Memphis paper bags don't get recycled. And according to the Web site Reusablebags.com, only three states have facilities to recycle plastic bags: Ohio, Indiana, and Florida.
What's needed is fresh thinking. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, city governments are considering charging customers 17 cents for each plastic bag they take home from the grocery store. The idea is to discourage people from using disposable bags altogether. They're also encouraging grocery stores to sell or provide reusable cloth or mesh bags for their customers. Many stores are doing so and putting their logo on the bags. Win, win.
Sound crazy? Can't possibly work? In fact, it already is working elsewhere. Some European countries have already banned disposable bags. In the three years since Ireland imposed a 15-cent-per-bag fee, the use of plastic bags has decreased by 90 percent. That saves oil and saves the environment and saves money for consumers in the long run.
With gas at almost $3 a gallon, it doesn't make sense to waste a precious resource like oil producing disposable plastic bags. We hear and read over and over how progressive thinking makes a city more attractive to smart young people who might consider moving there.
So let's get progressive, Memphis. Come on, City Council. Come on, grocery stores -- think outside the bag.
Bruce VanWyngarden, Editor