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Essay

Plastic Bags, Headed for A Meltdown

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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

On a recent Sunday, I stood in a long line at the Dupont Circle farmers market. At the front was a young woman, juggling nearly a dozen apples as she tried to hand them to the cashier to be weighed.

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"Here, let me get you a bag," the cashier suggested.

"No. No," the woman answered harriedly. "I brought my own!"

The cashier glanced at the growing line of impatient patrons. And the young woman turned around, too, a pained look spreading across her face.

"Okay. But then take them out. I can put them in here."

Pause.

"Really, I really don't want one."

It was, perhaps, a sign of the times. The plastic bag, that staple of modern life, is about to become radioactive.

The whole thing seemed a little silly -- even to me, one of those vaguely preachy farmers market types who brings along her canvas bag only to guiltily head home with it full of plastic bags of produce. But it's not happening just at the farmers market. In 2002, Ireland instituted a 15-cent tax on plastic bags to end the "litter menace," and Bangladesh banned them outright. This year, China and Australia will outlaw them. Here at home, San Francisco has begun requiring shops to use only bags made of at least 40 percent recycled paper. And on Jan. 22, trendsetter Whole Foods announced that as of Earth Day (April 22) it no longer will offer plastic bags to customers at the checkout counters. The move, the company estimates, will take 100 million new bags out of circulation by the end of 2008.

Get that 98 percent recycled tote ready. You're going to need it.

Sound crazy? Remember, it was less than a year ago that bottled water was the sophisticated choice in restaurants and at home. Now if you drink the stuff you're an environmental cretin, personally responsible for some of the 1.5 million barrels of oil used each year to make the plastic containers. Upon hearing that news, a guilt-stricken colleague rushed out to buy a filter for his faucet and is considering buying a gadget to make sparkling water at home. His friends who haven't made the change? "Bottle-buying, Earth-polluting pigs."

I don't miss bottled water. I regard its fall from grace as an opportunity to cloak cheapness in environmental virtue.


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