Plastic Woes and Bag Lady Foes

1) During the 2011 International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers collected 120,450 pounds of plastic bags off of beaches in the United States. 

I just need some lentils. Well, and also some oats. I peer around the slow-moving bodies, hopeful for a stack of paper bags tucked between the rice and granola bins. A skinny kid in an apron is checking the steel jugs of vinegar, oil and syrup.

“Excuse me,” I ask. “Are there paper bags in this section?”

“Uhhhh…” he says. Oh dear. I just need some lentils. Why didn’t I grab bags? I do have my canvas shopping bags in hand, but to reuse all my plastic produce sacks is a feat that escapes me, like maintaining a running schedule or listening to every episode of my favorite podcast. The intention is there. So, too, desire. But it’s a step beyond the possible.

2) Plastic bags can easily blow out of trash bins and landfills to end up in the ocean. Marine wildlife often mistake plastic bags for food, especially sea turtles hunting jellyfish.

My hand floats over the roll of fresh plastic bags. I just need some lentils. I can get the oats next time.

“Here,” says a woman to my left. She is stooped over, crone-like, but she has a sweet face. “I reuse all my plastic bags! Would you like one?” She’s already digging in her tote bag.
“Yes,” I say, gratefully. This will be me in thirty years. I’ll also be running two miles daily and decimating my podcast cue.

3) More than 80% of marine plastic comes from land-based sources. In the ocean, these plastics break down into microplastics: small, plankton-sized particles that are reabsorbed into the food chain, including the fish we eat. 

She hands me a mottled ziploc. It’s not any grosser than the ones I’ve washed at home and tucked into the drawer. The fact that it’s not my own, home-grown residue in this baggie is what icks me out, and I’m not about to be hung up on a silly thing like microbes. Not when there are sea turtles at stake.

“How many do you want?” she asks, still digging. What all does she have in there? I now notice that the tote is ragged, her hair is unwashed, and that she’s wearing more than one skirt.

As Bojack Horseman once said, when you’re wearing rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.

That’s me in thirty years, I remind myself. Don’t judge. Lentils, oats, and — since I now have a source of bags, why not? — some of those chocolate-covered almonds.
“Three,” I tell her, with the confidence that comes of promising oneself chocolate for good behavior.

4) Over 100 cities, towns, and counties across the US have banned single-use plastic bags. (Including Santa Cruz, but produce bags are still available.) 

The next two plastic bags that are thrust at me are dirtier than the first. Something is stuck inside one of them.

“I find them everywhere!” the bag lady tells me, proudly. “People just throw them away!”

Ah. This, no. This is not me. I am not this. But she’s watching me now. Slowly, cautiously, I take the first bag and place it under the mouth of the bin of red lentils. I’m going to rinse and boil them anyway, right?

5) Americans use and throw away more than 100 billion plastic bags each year, more than 300 bags per person per year.

“Sometimes,” she continues, “If I’m here and I can’t find a bag, I just go to the trash can by the front of the store. There’s always one in there!”

“Great!” I say, turning to her and smiling brightly. I note the bin number on my shopping list, then keep my nose down. She takes the cue.

“Have a nice day!” she crows, trundling on with her shopping cart.

“Thanks again!” I stuff the grimy bags into my canvas tote and run.

6) Plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, but take 20 years to break down in the ocean. Nobody knows how long microplastics can linger. 

“What’s for dinner?” my partner asks when I get home. I’m putting away the groceries, regretting my decision not to buy chocolate, aware that the ziploc atrocities are at the bottom of the bag somewhere.

“I don’t know,” I say, intent on my task. Find bags. Throw them in the trash before she sees them. I already have a reputation around here; no need to worsen it.

“Fish?” she asks. The documentary is fresh in my mind, and the words of the panelist who spoke afterward. She compared eating top predators like bass, tuna, salmon and halibut to eating a wolf or a lion. They get the highest concentration of toxins because they are at the top of the ocean food chain.

I know I don’t want to eat garbage residue clinging to a sketchy plastic bag dumpster-dived by my maybe-future-self. But even stronger is my inclination not to consume tiny pieces of plastic that have been floating in the ocean for decades.

“Let’s just have some lentils,” I say, and pour them into a strainer for a good, long rinse.

Facts courtesy Environment Massachusetts and the excellent film Straws, featuring Santa Cruz activists who actually offer hope for cleaning up our oceans. For more fascinating information about the Plastic Soup (no recipes), check out this post by Columbia Water Center.

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