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Ban on plastic bags – good news or bad?

November 16, 2007 at 9:14 am

They have been banned in South Africa, Taiwan and Bangladesh; taxed in Ireland; become the subject of much debate in cities from Edinburgh to San Francisco; and brought headline fame to the small Devon town of Modbury. There is no doubt about it: plastic bags have become a contentious issue.

It is estimated that, globally, between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year. That works out at over one million each minute. The environmental impact is huge and the problem is not just the fact that many of the bags end up in our over-stretched landfill sites, or that the production depends on non-renewable sources such as petroleum and natural gas. What is significant is that the plastic used to manufacture the bags does not biodegrade but instead photodegrades, breaking down into ever decreasing toxic particles, which contaminate the world’s soil, water supply and end up in the food chain, being accidentally ingested by animals.

An estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic finds its way each year into the sea, with devastating consequences for marine wildlife. In fact, it was after the filming of a BBC documentary in Hawaii, that wildlife photographer, Rebecca Hosking, set up the campaign to ban plastic bags in her home town of Modbury.

Talking of the hundreds of dead albatross chicks that she saw, Miss Hosking said: “There were carcasses everywhere I looked. You couldn’t walk in a straight line without stepping on a dead chick. Plastic was bursting out of the bodies.” Modbury’s answer to the problem has been to sell paper or recycled cotton bags, but have they, and environmentally friendly towns like them, got it right?

Research carried out by the Government shows that 59% of us reuse our plastic bags for everything from disposing of our rubbish, “poop-scooping” when walking our dogs, wrapping up our baby’s dirty nappies, and disposing of our cat’s litter. When a tax was introduced in Ireland, the free supply of plastic bags dried up and people actually ended up buying more plastic than before the tax was introduced, in the guise of bin liners and nappy bags.

When retailers changed to paper bags, the environmental impact was even greater: it takes four times as much energy to create a paper bag than it does a plastic bag. The trees cut down to produce the paper are no longer able to absorb greenhouse gases and, when degrading, paper produces even more greenhouse gases. Paper bags also take up far more room in landfill sites because of their bulk, although they do degrade more quickly than plastic.

Cotton bags do not fare much better. A cotton bag weighs around eleven times more than the average plastic bag, creating a far bigger carbon footprint bearing in mind the need to transport it from the other side of the world. Consideration also has to be given to the poor working conditions and meagre salaries of those making these cotton bags.

All in all, the ban on plastic bags is a thorny issue. There’s a lot of money out there for the person who can invent a bag, which does not deplete our natural resources in its manufacture, and which disappears as if by magic, when no longer needed!

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One response to “Ban on plastic bags – good news or bad?”

  1. Richard Browning says:

    I have produced a bag that is 100% biodegradable, unlike jute bags on the market that are plastic coated we have produced a 100% natural alternative. We are launching at the National Retail Show London Feb 5th – 6th.

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