Monday, January 05, 2004

The Plastic Hassle

I live near a mall, although you’d never know it to visit my neighbourhood. It’s as well-hidden as a mall can be, which makes its proximity less onerous somehow. (See also: "Local Hipster Overexplaining Why He Was at the Mall," from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002.)

Anyway, the exterior entrance to No Frills, the discount supermarket that anchors the Dufferin Mall (along with Wal-Mart) is elevated, and thus, trapped within the trees below, are deteriorating plastic bags, beautiful in a horrific kind of way. A few years ago, a one-off Toronto zine called Wi'ndbaegs appeared, a kind of Xeroxed photo-album that documented old plastic bags caught in tree branches. I’ve researched and written about Decay quite extensively, and my fascination with these polyethylene ghosts continues.

However much I might enjoy the sickly aesthetic of tattered white plastic, eliminating such eyesores would be even better. Two great articles on the topic were published last year. One from the Summer 2003 edition of OnEarth:

And that's really what I'm reacting to: the ubiquity of the plastic bag. Nothing epitomizes better the mindless profligacy of our consumer culture than these cheap, flimsy, yet depressingly indestructible little bags that get caught in our trees, blow down streets, and wash up on our beaches. Look around -- they're everywhere. Americans throw away one hundred billion polyethylene bags a year. They choke thousands of marine animals annually; the inks used to print all those smiley faces break down in landfills and create a toxic seep. Though plastic bags take up less than four percent of all landfill space (they're easily compressed), estimates on how long they take to decompose range from a hundred years to a thousand, despite what the bag boys at my local supermarket think.


The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand are all considering imposing a tax on plastic bags since Ireland instituted a 15 cent per bag tax in March 2002, which has reduced bag use by 90 percent. Grocery stores complained about having to collect the tax, which requires them to ring up bags like additional purchases. But as a spokesman for an Irish supermarket chain explained to the London Independent , "Eventually, most people said, yes, it's the right thing to do. We just needed to be pushed into it."

The film American Beauty, which features a long, poetic clip of a plastic bag swirling on an eddy of air, snagged five Academy Awards, yet I for one still find it hard to think of plastic bags as things of beauty. But as a product -- as something created and then unleashed to become seamlessly integrated into the lives of millions of people around the world -- there is a strange allure to them, just as a pathologist can admire the structure of a particularly virulent and contagious virus

The second article on the topic, a hilarious, note-perfect, I-wish-there-was-an-article-like-that-every-week, ran in eye back in October:

Yesterday I bought a two-litre carton of milk at the corner store: $4.09. The lady pulled open a plastic bag and started to put the milk inside. "That's grand," said I, gripping the carton about the midriff. "I don't need a bag." Yes I could bear this carton the full 50 metres back to my house, without any plastic assistance.

Who taught me the iron self-discipline necessary to forego a free carrying device? The Irish government did. Last year, I was living in Usher's Island, Dublin, when they introduced a tax on plastic bags, and I witnessed the miracle by which the tariff became part of the national identity.

Ireland has an ongoing struggle with litter. Before the tax, plastic bags blew around the cul-de-sacs of grey council estates; they knotted about Georgian railings and choked the oily gutters and hung like ragged petrochemical fruit from the branches of sad urban trees

I urge you to read both articles and consider how taxing sacks is a fantastic idea. Really, sometimes taxes aren’t terrible. Honest. I’m not a Communist. I swear.

(This is my first posting of 2004.)