Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Dirt on Plastic Bags

With this week's news that the LCBO is ditching plastic bags, it seems that people and organizations are finally starting to take notice of a certain message: Our addiction to plastic is a big, crackly, rustly, not-going-away problem. While changing our behaviour will take effort, there's a million great reasons to do so. Here's a primer on the challenges of plastic bags, and why you're better off using your own bags every time.

What's the big plastic baggy deal? Plastic bags, along with other types of plastic packaging, are everywhere, so much that we barely even notice them anymore. There are plenty of things to consider when you grab that extra bag. Plastic bags are usually "virgin" plastic, not recycled plastic, so it's basically straight from the oil barrel to the shelf. These bags are almost always used once and only once - the recycling levels for plastics are not great (more on that below). Plastic carry bags are actively used, on average, for mere minutes before they are discarded, ending up in landfills, the bellies of animals, or getting buried in the soil. And they're used inefficiently - one bag for your bacon, another bag for your eggs, a third for your bread. The easy access and ubiquity of these bags encourages consumers to use them without thinking twice. What's really interesting, though, is that it's actually easier and more convenient to carry your own sturdy reusable bags - they'll hold more, are easier to carry, and can be used hundreds of times before they require fixing or replacement. The only issue is remembering to take them with you.

Is anybody else doing anything about plastic bags? You bet they are. The Republic of Ireland put a levy on the use of plastic bags in 2002, taxing each bag at 15 cents (euro). The Irish dropped those plastic bags like proverbial hot potatoes, going from an average of 328 plastic bags used per head to just 21. And when people got used to it and the bag usage started creeping up? The tax was raised to 22 cents. The funds raised all went to environmental programs.

They're also banned in San Francisco, parts of Australia, some provinces in India, and will shortly be banned in China. Hong Kong is trying to cut back too, but with mixed results.

But doesn't recycling solve the problem? Yes, plastic is recyclable - but the vast majority of it is not recycled (to the extent that plastic recyclers and recycled plastic users are facing shortages). And the recycling process is not without its issues, requiring large amounts of energy and input of other materials in order to repurpose the plastic. Wikipedia has a thorough, although scientifically way over my head, article on recycling plastic here. And the Ecology Center has a great article on 7 misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling that will likely make you look at plastic consumption in a new way.

If we stop using plastic, won't people in the plastics industry lose their jobs? I'll go out on a limb here and say that plastic isn't going anywhere overnight. The jobs of those in plastic manufacturing are safe for now. However, eventually we can hope that yes, the production of virgin plastics will be severely reduced, and when that happens the people working in plastic manufacturing industries will definitely be affected. By the time that this has an impact, I have every faith that resourceful, innovative and insightful people will have long since started new industries, whether it's effectively recycling or otherwise repurposing waste plastics or something else, which will be in place to absorb the labour force. The world has survived the demise of types of industries before, and will do so again.

All right, you've convinced me. What can I do? The best option is to carry your own bags. Many, many shops now sell reusable bags for low prices. It's eco-friendly, it's a great response to consumer demand, and (who are we kidding) it's a great way for the store to advertise. The Loblaws chain sells a big bag with sturdy handles, made out of recycled pop bottles, for $1. Bonus: This bag is recyclable when it wears out! LUSH has a more expensive fairly traded cotton bag, made by a women's co-operative in India. And ecochick's already featured these neat Flip and Tumble bags that squish into a handbag-friendly ball, so that you'll always have it with you.

Looking for more reading?

Reusablebags.com has an excellent article on the full cost of plastic bags - from production costs, using petroleum and natural gas (yes, plastic is made from petroleum!) to consumption costs (the bag is given to the consumer for "free", but the retailer buys the bags from the manufacturer, so the reality is the cost is passed on to the consumer by adding it on to the price of your item) to disposal and litter costs (wide-ranging, and all are disturbing and long-lasting).

The Guardian Online's Emma Brockes wrote an excellent rant about how The World Has A Big Bag Problem, in which she declares the plastic bag the successor to the cockroach in terms of its ability to outlive the human race.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Our household just reached a milestone. We have run out of plastic bags. I honestly never thought this would happen; guess we're remembering to take our shopping bags.

Plastic bags they now have a real value to us and we have some new, interesting issues; How does the garbage get from the kitchen to the garbage can? Will we buy plastic bags (maybe biodegradeable ones?) when they are no longer free. How will wet bathing suits get home?