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Break the plastic mold

You've probably heard of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell and even Samuel Colt. Franklin did a lot to invent the electric shock, Ford the car accident, Bell the phone bill and Colt the drive-by shooting. But I'm guessing that you've never heard of the man who'll eventually have a bigger impact on the world than all of the others combined; Alexander Parkes.

You see in 1862, about the time that we were having a most uncivil war here in America, they had what was called a Great International Exhibition in London. And it was there that Mr. Parkes introduced an organic material derived from cellulose that the public called Parkensine. What made this material stand out was that you could mold it after you heated it and it would retain that new shape even after it cooled. Now that sounds like no big deal in the new millennium, but back then, before Wii, Play-Doh, gorilla tape and pot pies, it was pretty amazing.

Today we call the stuff plastic, use it in everything from baby dolls to bed pans and even hold special events for it, featuring lots of coffee, cookies, cake and gossip, and call them Tupperware parties. But we also go through about 7,000 to 14,000 barrels of oil (an hour) to make 3.6 billion plastic bags that people consume (every hour) on this planet. That's 86.4 billion bags a day and I'd tell you how many that is a year but I don't have enough toes and neither do you, I hope.

So what, you say, it sure beats chopping down every tree from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho to Omsk, Russia to make the paper bags that they'd be using otherwise, doesn't it? Well yes, except that the life expectancy of a plastic bag can be as long as 1,000 years, which is longer than you, I and our great-grandchild's great-grandchild will be around to use them, which almost qualifies plastic bags as Greek gods and puts us in a bit of a quandary when it comes to them taking over the planet. If they ever team up with mosquitoes we'll be in real trouble.

So what do we do? One answer is to recycle, except that we currently only recycle about 1 percent of them so we've got a long ways to go. Personally, I use shopping bags as garbage bags, just to do my part, which is probably not the answer and only insures that they end up in some landfill for the next 1,000 years. At any rate, even recycling, on a mass scale, is a Band-Aid approach.

You see, I have no real prejudice against plastic bags, some of my best friends are plastic bags, but my horses do, who have ridden through parking lots filled with roaring Harley-Davidson motorcycles and not flinched but freak out when a plastic bag, stuck to a barbwire fence, flops in the wind like a ghoul on Halloween, as if maybe they know something about plastic bags that you and I don't.

I suggest that we each have Grandma, Aunt Lola or our favorite tailor make us a few cloth shopping bags that we can take with us to the mall or grocery store and fill with our favorite sodas, chocolate bars, magazines, trinkets, Tupperware, jugs of antifreeze and Victoria's Secret items. That'll save 336,000 barrels of oil a day, make Grandma and Aunt Lola feel real important, cut down on the number of plastic bags stuck on barbwire fences, win us the plastic bag war and make everyone, including my horses, happy! And just think of the fashion statement that you can make with your wide variety of colorful cloth shopping bags. But make sure that the material grandma or Aunt Lola uses is cotton, not polyester, or we'll be right back where we started from.

-- Holten is the Dickinson State University Foundation's communications coordinator.