Convenience Without Consequences

By Qin Sun Stubis

Looking back in time, it is surprising how often we thought we found a perfect remedy a to a problem or an invention to improve our lives, only to discover much later that it had flaws lethal enough to threaten our very existence. Asbestos and DDT are two perfect examples.

During the 1960s and ’70s in Shanghai, China, my mother sprayed DDT in our one-room house right before we headed for bed, sometimes with the windows closed. She thought she was protecting us from bugs and insects, totally unaware of its deadly consequences. Now, a similar situation has occurred with the invention of a wispy, nearly weightless “convenience”– the plastic shopping bag.

For decades, plastic bags have been essential to our everyday shopping. When we check out of a store, we expect an endless supply of them waiting to serve us. Thank goodness for these bags. How else can we get our goods from the store to our car, and then our house? When we finally haul our purchases home and put away our bounty, most of these bags end up in our trash. The life of a plastic bag is very short. It exists to provide convenience, to make life easier for us.

Having served us for so long, no one expected that these innocuous objects could one day generate explosive outcries and condemnation. They have been accused of polluting our oceans and land, and choking, trapping and ultimately killing our animals and fish. In 2008, PBS reported “a vast ‘garbage patch’ of plastic debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.” As we continue to observe our same old lifestyle, these floating plastic patches are likely to grow in our oceans.

Opinions on the fate of these plastic bags vary. Here in Maryland, our State Assembly members argued, but couldn’t come to a consensus on installing a measure to dissuade their usage. But locally, Montgomery County where I live, voted almost unanimously to install a five-cent tax on every bag, effective January 1, generating one million dollars a year for the county. Ironically, however, this revenue will be used toward improving our water quality, but not for finding alternatives to plastic bags.

Santa Monica, too, has found its own way to reduce plastic usage by having customers bring their own bags or pay for paper bags at checkout counters. Nevertheless, most of America’s 50 states are still freely dispensing plastic bags, including my former state, New York. It is estimated that the United States alone consumes about 100 billion plastic bags a year. While this number is likely to go down, we are still a long way from resolving this issue.

I believe the concept of the plastic bag was flawed at birth. Why would we create something intended for a 30-minute shopping trip with a material that can last for 400 years? The same can be said about using plastic for packaging and other aspects of our life: Even if we stop using plastic shopping bags altogether, we still generate a lot of plastic waste from the wrapping around our bread, dry-cleaned clothes, newspapers, or candy bars.

My question is: Can we keep life’s conveniences without environmental consequences? After all, we live in a modern world where convenience is a key to successful lives. If our scientists can build spaceships and launch men to the moon, they certainly should have the capability to invent a biodegradable material that can be mass produced to substitute plastic. I want to challenge American scientists to take this urgent matter into their hands and work out a solution before it is too late. We’ve created plastic. It’s time we create a replacement.

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