By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

This whole debate about plastic bags once seemed frivolous to me, next to some of the really mammoth issues confronting society — food scarcity, global warming, coal and oil pollution. I got that it mattered. But it seemed like a side trip on the road to sustainability, like a smaller matter that would eventually resolve on its own. I was more concerned about the carbon pollution from big industrial sources, and our cars and our homes, that comprise the Damocles sword threatening our children’s future.

We had big fish to fry.

And that is true. But there’s a symbolic importance to the fight over disposables that makes this plastic bag battle worth fighting. First, speaking of frying fish, that’s exactly what plastic bags are doing. Plastic waste, bottle caps and plastic bags turn up in the stomachs of sea life routinely now. Our little convenience¬† is another creature’s health risk. Skipping the serious morality issue that raises, where does it leave us from a practical standpoint? What higher-level animal sullies its own nest or so mindlessly taints the food chain like that?

There’s also the now ubiquitous problem of how these lighter-than-air bags seem to waft around public places, proliferating in parks and trees, testament to our failure to preserve even portions of the environment we purport to cherish.

Is the harm from these bags the worst assault on the planet? Probably not. They’ve got stiff competition out there. Deforestation on a massive scale in the worse possible places, overfishing that threatens to collapse large food ecosystems, coal plant emissions, oil spills, tar sands mining and CAFOs come to mind.

And yet, this skirmish over plastic bags — and paper towels, paper napkins and plastic baggies — is symbolically important. Think about the origins of these products. Paper disposables claim trees. We use up in minutes what took years to grow, not to mention all the human energy and capital we devote to this enterprise. Plastics are made from petroleum. Whoever conceived of taking a raw resource from deep within the Earth to form into a one-time use plastic fork. Brilliant, no? Now take these plastic bags. They’re light and airy and they break easily. You need a multitude to contain the week’s groceries, so we use billions of them. But then, of course, they all get recycled. You know that’s not true. Americans throw away 100 billion annually, according to the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Where do plastic bags reside in your house? I’m betting you have an entire cabinet devoted to them.

We’re clogging our landfills, downing trees and creating carbon emissions with many other things, couches, old jeans, used deodorant containers. But at least these products are justifiable. Across the globe, we humans wear clothes and sit on furniture (not in all cases) and we smell pretty nice, on the whole. These are the necessities of civilized life. Plastic forks? Single use paper towels? Plastic grocery bags? Each has a more durable, more responsible and reusable replacement.

I’m stymied about why we can’t get with it. Somewhere in a cabinet behind those plastic bags can we not find a few canvas totes — and washrags and wooden or metal utensils? Plastic grocery bags are a gateway activity for aspiring greenies. It’s easy to turn them down.

In California, he plastics trade group, namely the American Chemistry Council (ACC), persuaded the Senate to vote down a statewide plastic bag ban yesterday. The proposed ban, which had passed the Assembly, failed after the ACC unleashed commercials claiming it would cost taxpayers millions in enforcement, a claim that proponents rebutted.

But we consumers hold purse strings too. Stopping the cash flow to unnecessary disposables would help clean the planet and send a signal that we’ve wised up about what we need — and what we don’t.

It would show that we have seen the light — or the plastic bags snared in the trees — and are ready to heed that ghastly warning to humanity known as the Plastic Gyre or Trash Vortex in the Pacific Ocean.¬† That plastic dump filled with bags, bottles and a myriad of other plastic inventions is twice the size of Texas, which just goes to show you how a small problem can fester and become a big one.

If this king of dumps isn’t proof that our consumption compass needs recalibrating, then we’d better ready the space ships for Mars.