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One Last Dance with Plastic Bags

They’re banned in Vancouver, but the colourful leftovers under my sink live on. A visual archive.

Christopher Cheung 31 Aug 2022TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Find him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

The age of plastic bags might be officially over in Vancouver, but you can still spot these so-called “single-use” items around the city living another life.

There are the binners who use them to lug cans and bottles to the recycling depot. There are the backyard farmers who use them as jackets to warm their hanging melons and squashes. Like many others who’ve been hoarding them long before the ban, I’m still reusing them as (what else?) bags for gifts, groceries and garbage.

Vancouver brought on the ban in January, ahead of the federal ban coming at the end of the year.

A colourful collection of five plastic bags against a white background.

We know that plastic bags are terrible for the environment. They don’t biodegrade, they carry toxic chemicals and break down into small pieces that are breeding grounds for bacteria. In Canada, we use an estimated 15 billion plastic bags annually, bags that make up the bulk of plastic litter found on our shorelines.

Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, says it took a while for plastic bags to enter our everyday lives. In the 1950s, there was panic about how the bags suffocated children. There was also the fact that customers didn’t like the thought of clerks licking their fingers to pull a plastic bag free from the stack. But after large grocery chains like Safeway adopted them in the early 1980s, their widespread use by other retailers took off. Four decades later, Canada is finally breaking up with them.

A collection of three white and grey grocery bags from Safeway, Walmart and H-Mart against a white background.

Still, Freinkel gives credit where credit is due: “[W]e forget what an engineering marvel it is: a waterproof, durable, featherweight packet capable of holding more than a thousand times its weight.”

My favourite part of these vanishing bags is the graphic design, particularly those by local businesses.

Artist Sho Shibuya, who photographed plastic bags after New York banned them in 2020, was particularly enamoured with those “Thank you! Have a nice day!” bags with big yellow smiley faces on them. They appear generic, but look closer and you’ll see that each has a slightly different smile.

He shared a Shinto belief with the New York Times: “We believe every single object has a god inside, and that’s why we cherish things. Even a plastic bag, even a cigarette butt.”

Digging out the hoard of plastic bags from under my sink, each carries the memory of a journey and a purchase.

The new jacket I saved up for, in a transparent bag so everyone could see what I got as I strolled down Main Street. The strip of pork belly from the butcher, in a bag with the image of a friendly pig on the side. I have a few sleek bright-red ones from Chinese restaurants, from when my grandmother showed up after dining with her friends to share some leftover lobster with us.

A selection of light-coloured grocery bags, with one yellow bag at the bottom of the frame, against a white background.

I love all the art, especially the cornucopias of cartoony fruit used by small supermarkets. They often choose bold colours for their bags to distinguish themselves from the competition, as if carrying one was a statement of brand loyalty, more eye-catching than any Louis Vuitton.

A selection of plastic bags from local Vancouver businesses against a white background.

Plastic bags may be on their way to becoming rare relics of mass consumption, but I look forward to seeing how people find new uses for them before they go extinct. Policy-makers decry “throwaway” culture, but there are class, cultural and generational divides behind this. Just as tins of Royal Dansk butter cookies are saved for sewing supplies and jars of Taster’s Choice for spices, plastic bags will live again before they die for good.

As we adopt less harmful alternatives to carry our stuff, our experience of the city will be transformed, says sociologist Rebecca Altman, who is writing a book on the history of plastics.

“Can you imagine the soundscape without that crinkle, crinkle, whispery sound?” she told the New York Times. “We didn’t have that sound, at some point, in our ears.”

It’s hard to imagine the rhythms of my home without that familiar crinkling. Looking at the bags that crowd the cupboard under my sink, I intend to make use of them for as long as I can.

A light pink bag with cartoon animal clip art reads “good luck” in blue text.

Read more: Local Economy, Environment

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