A Whole New Breed of Evil: the Plastic Bag

I have too much stuff.

I have two calendars on my wall, 31 pairs of underwear in my closet drawer and 11 scarves hanging on my three overworked wall hooks. Between my closet, my purse and my car, I have taken on the personal task of storing about 40 old Guardian issues. A giant bag containing every piece of schoolwork I’ve ever completed in college sits in my hallway closet. I own approximately 26 pairs of shoes.

I wouldn’t call myself a “Hoarders” hotshot, but that’s still a shit-ton of stuff. I’m really not sure how I accumulated it all, but here’s my guess:

Over time, humans have evolved to rely less on their bodies and more on their brains. As a result, we’ve accumulated a set of life accessories, which we must have with us at all times. At the dawn of mankind, these possessions were fur pelts and sharpened rocks; today, they take the form of smart phones, credit cards and bags — thousands and thousands of bags.

Plastic bags, in particular, are perhaps the most omnipresent thing in the modern household — the container/vehicle of all fringe doodads. In my immediate line of vision, I can currently see two: The first is of the Geisel, book-toting species and the second a thin-skinned CVSer wrapped around my trash can.

But I know there are more. As the cockroach of the modern living space, the plastic bag nudges its way into a home’s every crevice and almost immediately multiplies. When I brush my teeth tonight, they will stare at me from the bathroom cupboard. When I make breakfast tomorrow morning, they will threaten to spill from a basket near the microwave. Wherever I am, there they are.

You can hide or discard the thin waxy demons, but you can never kill them altogether: Plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. The receptacles I toted my groceries home in last Thursday will outlive me. They will outlive my children. They will outlive my grandchildren.

And, in a country whose citizens use about 50 to 80 billion plastic shopping bags a year, it’s no surprise I can’t escape them. With such power in numbers, they need a place to go. For a long time, they seemed only to settle for highway gutters and landfills — but recently, they’ve recently been sighted blizzarding through the streets of China, floating north of the Arctic Circle and conferencing with other waste in a garbage patch way out in the North Pacific.

While their ubiquity is by no means welcome, I have little idea how we could possibly fight a movement this gigantic. There are only a few select California communities — San Diego not included — that have exiled plastic bags altogether. As an individual, I am especially weak in the ways of responsible consumption: My reusable, eco-friendly bag lays dusty and neglected beneath a pile of (you guessed it) plastic bags, and I often forget to request that my purchases be sacked in paper.

But even if I did, how many more people would need to do the same for the plastic shopping bag to go extinct? How can we eliminate a species we so enthusiastically created when our reliance on its ephemeral function is still so instrumental? How, in the first place, did we develop such a flimsy, disposable item with such incredibly resilient materials? Why do sea turtles mistake them as food? Is a sea turtle’s eyesight really that bad?

I don’t want to get all conspiracy-theory on you here, but I think they might be after us. You probably all think the manmade invention that’s going to enslave us is the computer, but I’ve got news for you: Computers can’t fly like ninjas. Plastic bags can. And they will. Once they’ve decided there’s not enough room on the planet for both of our species — and that time will come sooner than you think — they will storm our civilization like they did that one street in “American Beauty.” But instead of looking whimsical, they will suffocate your young.

So, be wary of those innocent-looking sleepers peeking from your kitchen drawer. Poke holes in them to hinder their gift of flight, and/or recycle them at Whole Foods while we wait for the imminent showdown. In the meantime, you know what to do next time the store clerk asks, “Paper or plastic?”

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