Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Ban the Bag

You'd think getting rid of plastic bags is a no brainer but some green folk would have you think otherwise.

In The Guardian today, Leo Hickman wrote a Comment is Free piece, spurred by the Welsh Assembly's consideration of a tax on plastic bags, and poured cold water all over the idea.

The crux of his argument is that it detracts from the larger problem of climate change, the same line espoused by George Monbiot and James Lovelock, who compared tackling the plastic bag problem to "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic".

Of course, putting your shopping in a cotton bag rather than a plastic one isn't going to stop the Earth turning to a crisp, but there are still many reasons for doing it.

First of all, plastic creates an awful lot of unsightly and ecologically damaging waste. Everybody's seen the cliched Tesco bag caught in a hedgerow or tangled in seaweed on the beach, but many haven't seen the veritable soup of plastic waste floating around the Pacific Ocean.

According to Greenpeace, this 'trash vortex' of the remnants of our throwaway society acts as a 'chemical sponge' which "can concentrate many of the most damaging of the pollutants found in the worlds oceans: the persistent organic pollutants (POPs). So any animal eating these pieces of plastic debris will also be taking in highly toxic pollutants." And is passed down the food chain, I assume.

Monbiot points out that the production of plastic bags contributes little to greenhouse gas emissions. However, it does contribute to different kinds of ecological ruin, so why should this be kicked into the long grass for the sake of the wider problem? Isn't the whole point of living a green life to limit your impact on the environment? Surely then, any kind of positive action should be encouraged?

One reader said in the Comments section of Hickman's piece: "I think this sort of article is why many people don't even attempt to be more environmentally friendly, because no matter what we do, someone, somewhere is going to tell us it's not good enough."

We're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't.

I also fail to see how it will actually draw attention away from the issue of climate change. I understand the point, that people will use alternatives and think they've done their part for the planet, but this is flawed. If the production of plastic bags has little effect on emissions, don't sell a curb on them as being something that reduces emissions then. Instead, sell it as it is - an effort to curb what is essentially littering.

Furthermore, how many people currently think about the environment in their day-to-day lives? Would a ban or tax on plastic bags not bring home to them the consequences of their lifestyle and actually kick start people into thinking about the environment? We need to start somewhere after all and campaign groups could then seize on this awareness to drive further change, from plastic packaging to global warming.

Hickman alludes to a wider problem when he says that plastic bags are "one of the most recognisable symbols of our modern throwaway culture". We live in a wasteful society which thinks nothing of throwing away 'stuff' willy nilly. This is an equally pressing problem, which is among the root causes of the kind of behaviour causing climate change as well wider socio-economic problems around the world. Another reason to get rid of them, no? If only to set people's minds on a more considerate path.

Hickman also talks of "unintended consequences" such as the subsequent increase in demand for black bin liners, but concerted efforts at recycling would render bin bags obsolete. Bin bags are items of convenience, because it's easier to put waste in a bag in a bin rather than split it up for recycling or carry it straight to the big wheelie bin. Granted, it's a problem, but one that can easily be overcome with a bit of common sense. People may not like it because it's lifestyle change, to consciously recycle, but we're going to need bigger lifestyle changes if we're to avert climate disaster.

As for what action should be taken I think an outright ban, although ideal, would be pushing it too far, but some kind of tax is not unreasonable. At least then on the occasion when you genuinely do forget your Bag for Life you can still get your oranges home without resorting to an insane juggling act.

This is something that people can do so let's do it! The sooner we just get on with it and implement the bloody thing the sooner we can focus on those serious issues that deserve even more attention.


See the work of photographer Chris Jordan, who portrays statistics of American life, such as the number of plastic bottles used at any one moment, through the lens.


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