I don't often climb on a bandwagon and, as you know, this blog is normally for general cheerful waffle,. However, a post has been brewing for a while, prompted initially by one that Blue Witch wrote (BW, if you send me the link I'll put it up), saying that she felt too much fuss was being made about plastic bags, and it's here now because of Diamond Geezer's grumble today. Blue Witch is concerned that supermarkets will make yet more profit - well indeed, but none of us is naive enough to think that we're not being charged for our 'free' plastic bags in higher prices already.
This is a pamphlet that Al wrote, having done a good deal of research, most of it on the internet and, although it's long, I reproduce it in full. I appreciate that most of you won't have time to read it all, but please do take away the message and try to take your own bags when you go shopping.
Over 95% of Britain’s plastic carrier bags are imported from China, Malaysia or Thailand. Once picked up by a shopper each carrier bag is used, on average, for only 12 minutes.
Approximately 90% are then discarded and buried in landfill sites.
Of the 10% which are not immediately thrown away, the vast majority are used just once more as a bin liner and so are thrown away on their next use.
The few that are recycled (approximately 0.5%) can only be made into such low-grade plastic that they are almost exclusively made into new bin liners, so end up in the landfill anyway.
So-called “degradable” plastic bags have been introduced by many supermarkets implying that they will be less damaging to the environment. In fact it has now been proven that these bags can actually do more harm than good.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
What’s wrong with these “degradable” bags? Don’t they break down in landfill?
The “degradable” bags are identical to the original carrier bags but with extra additives, the toxic metal compound cobalt being one of them. These make the bag more brittle causing it to fragment into small pieces. The extent of the damage these fragments cause to marine life has become increasingly evident. It has been discovered that there are six times more plastic fragments floating in parts of the Pacific Ocean than there is plankton.
Isn’t this a bit pointless? After all, it’s only a carrier bag.
The problem has arisen because of the vast scale of the situation. Around 1.3 trillion are manufactured annually and it takes an estimated 2%* of the world’s oil production to make them. The fact that all this effort and waste is going into making something that is actually “only a carrier bag” is the whole point of this campaign.
So why ban them completely? It seems a bit drastic.
The fact is that plastic bags are actually not necessary at all. They are easily replaced by simple solutions that have always existed. People have only become dependent on plastic bags in the last few years and in many ways the disposable carrier bag is symbolic of our modern throwaway culture.
If the problem is so serious why doesn’t the government do something about it?
Many governments around the world are doing something about it. To name a few, Australia has banned plastic bags from all superstores, Bangladesh has banned them entirely. Ireland has had a “plastic bag tax” for several years and France has given intention to enforce an outright ban in 2010. The British government is reluctant to act. As ever, their policy is to allow market forces to dictate progress. Unfortunately the four supermarkets which control over 80% of Britain’s grocery market have stated that they are not obliged to consider environmental damage in their decision to supply plastic bags.
So what’s the alternative? I can’t put everything in my pockets.
Shops participating in this campaign will stock alternatives for customers who don’t bring their own carriers. These are usually recycled boxes, paper bags, reuseable fabric or string bags and 100% biodegradeable cornstarch bags.
What are these new 100% biodegradeable cornstarch bags? Are they really flimsy?
Cornstarch bags look like plastic, feel like plastic and retain water and meat juices like plastic. However, unlike plastic they are completely compostable and leave no toxic residue after they have broken down
If these cornstarch bags are so environmentally friendly why don’t all shops just switch to giving those away instead?
The fact is that, although cornstarch bags are very environmentally friendly for disposal, they use more fossil fuels to manufacture than a standard plastic bag. For this reason, simply swapping from one bag to another may help solve one problem but would create a whole different crisis of a similar scale. For this reason one of the main principles of this campaign is that all shoppers are charged a small price for every new bag as an incentive not to use them.
With those reuseable cotton carriers, isn’t the cotton industry even more environmentally unfriendly because of the intensive farming and child labour involved?
This is a worry, but is avoidable if shoppers ask questions before buying cotton bags. Fair Trade organic cotton from sustainable plantations is available and unfortunately this is always reflected in the cost. Cheap cotton bags are often seen but are usually from countries like China which have none of the expensive overheads caused by standard pollution controls and providing even the most basic human rights for its citizens.
If I spend £20 or more in a shop, surely I can expect the retailer to at least pay for the bag?
The intention of this campaign is to focus the public’s attention on the carrier bag and the environmental cost of them. A situation like this makes it no less relevant.
The actual purchase of a carrier bag is intended to stand out in a shopper’s mind so as to provide more incentive to plan ahead and be prepared.
Isn’t this just an excuse for retailers to cash in on the new fashion for ‘going green’ by making money out of bags which used to be given away?
Retailers in the campaign are advised to sell all basic bags, both fabric and cornstarch, at cost price. The argument for this is that they never used to make a profit from supplying the plastic bags so it would appear rather unscrupulous to try to make money via the environmentally friendly bags.
What’s the big deal? Banning a few bags is pretty meaningless when you consider the scale of pollution worldwide.
This is not a broad campaign covering all aspects of global pollution. Banning plastic bags will not stop pollution any more than saving a polar bear will stop global warming. This is a campaign about one problem with a simple solution. Disposable plastic bags are a shocking waste of resources and a simple change of habits is all that is required to make a drastic difference.
If you have read this far and want to know more, I recommend you start with Modbury's website. This is the Devon town that was the first in the country to go plastic bag free.
Another link to a New York Times article on the Irish ban on free bags.
Here's BW’s views on the same subject. Scroll down to December 19th (though read all the rest on the way, because she's always worth reading). She has linked to a commercial website which completely disagrees with what I say, although notice what it's called, and you'll appreciate it's to be read with caution.
For example, it says that 80% of people reuse plastic bags in the home. Two things - first, that's 80% of people reusing some bags. It does not say 80% of bags are reused. Second, that nearly always means using them to put rubbish in, before putting it in the bin. I wrap rubbish in newspaper, because that's biodegradable. It's rarely (Al would say 'never) actually necessary to use a plastic bag at all.
Another link -'paper or plastic?' - well, I agree with the article, which says ‘neither’.
If you have a related link, let me know in the comments or by email and I'll add it. Of course, I'm willing to link to posts on both sides of the argument, as long as they're not abusive.
*This includes all plastic wrapping, not just carrier bags.