Enrique Sanchez: Bag-Monster has done his/her (why pronouns matter...) job at Trinity. So, today I'll take him down. She'll go someplace else...leaving (hopefully a deep memory in the congregation...)
Trinity: Bye, Bag-Monster!
The Story of Bag-monster
Interim Southern Regional Director
We all get them, those flimsy plastic bags that are doled out in stores to help us get our purchases home. But, what most of us don’t understand is the sheer volume of single-use bags we collectively consume, and the cost we pay in land filling, litter cleanup, and environmental damage. The following story is about one man’s effort to change that.
When Andy Keller started working on his fixer-upper house in Chico, California in 2004, one of his first tasks was to clean up the overgrown brush in his yard. While taking a load of limbs to the local landfill, he was struck by the most noticeable piece of trash in each load – plastic bags. They were everywhere: in and around the landfill, catching on tractors wheels and gears, blowing into fences, and birds were pecking them.
He had never given the bags much thought before that day, but even on the way home, he saw them as “urban tumbleweed,” and a major contributor to roadside litter. The experience made such an impression that he decided to create an alternative bag.
There were a few other companies who were making alternatives, but he didn’t like them. The cloth bags he knew were bulky and didn’t fold up well, so he decided to make a better bag. His design was made of lightweight material that could be stuffed into a small pouch sewn into a top seam. The Hacky Sack-looking bag had a drawstring closure and was small enough to fit in a purse or a pocket.
His business, the Chico Bag Company, grew slowly but steadily over the next several years. By 2011 the company had grown from a kitchen table production to employing 30 people, with annual revenues of $5 million. Education and green advocacy became part of Keller’s business plan. Unfortunately, this was the part that almost ended his business, and made him public enemy number one for the makers of plastic bags.
Keller gathered statistics for use in his anti-plastic bag campaign, such as: we collectively consume more than 102 billion plastic grocery bags a year. That comes to about 500 bags per American consumer per year. Every 500 plastic bags (made of fossil fuel), is the equivalent of ½ gallon of gasoline, which comes out to about 150 million gallons a year.
His advocacy efforts revolved around the bags’ sizable environmental footprint. He reported their impacts on wildlife, both on land, in rivers, and in oceans. He talked about how we all pay the cost of their disposal, and for roadside litter cleanup. Plus, he argued how weak efforts to recycle them results in less than 5% coming back to recycling programs.
Next, Keller made a costume; taking 500 used bags and making a Medusa of streaming plastic. When he adorned the bag costume he became his alter ego, a super villain, who loved plastic bags and urged everyone to love them too. The effect was disturbing, hilarious and irresistible. Keller made up several costumes because he got lots of requests to borrow them. He even started selling them to other communities, who were trying to educate their citizens.
In August of 2010, Keller and ninety-nine of his friends, each wearing a bag-monster costume descended on San Francisco en masse. They held a press conference. The New York Times did a story on them, and Keller gave a TED talk (Technology Entertainment and Design). That’s when the trouble started. Bag-monster, it seemed, had gone too far, and the plastic bag makers decided to fight back.
Three “big plastic” companies filed a lawsuit and launched a public relations campaign to muzzle the monster. They intended to reveal Keller’s environmental messages as deceptive advertising and self-serving propaganda. Desperate to fight a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags proposed in California’s capital, groups like the American Chemistry Council were spending millions on fighting the movement.
The California Senate voted 14 to 21 against the ban, with each of the no-votes receiving campaign donations from the plastics industry. The battle then shifted back to individual cities, where Keller struggled to survive what he calls “The Plastic Bag Wars.” The wars, thought of as David-versus-Goliath battles, continue nationwide to this day.
The issue returned for a vote in California in 2014, where it passed, but again the powerful plastics’ lobby turned the tables, shifting the decision to a voter-decided referendum in 2016. It’s not surprising that the industry is protecting its $100-$150 million dollar a year business in California alone. (See update below)
Many consumers view the bags as “free,” when in fact there is a cost to taxpayers for litter cleanup, land filling, pollution, and loss of wildlife. It’s a sort of “plastic welfare” that has acted as a market force in favor of waste and consumption.
In a local effort to educate the public about the problem, promote reusable bags, and encourage recycling, Mountain True volunteers have made a Bag-monster costume. Be looking for him, there will be sightings!
Update: On July 1st, 2022 California passed the First sweeping US law to reduce single-use plastics, shifting the responsibility to the producers. It aims to reduce the use of polystyrene (styrofoam) food containers by 25% by 2023, and requires that by 2032 at least 65% of styrofoam and plastics produced and distributed in the state be recycled.
Check out the following resources to learn more! (or have a giggle)