thenextwave

Why plastic bags matter

Posted in affluence, biodiversity, consumers, emerging issues, environment, retail, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 17 May, 2008

There’s another kerfuffle about getting rid of plastic bags, since one of the government’s waste advisers has suggested that government plans to ban plastic bags, or charge for them, are a diversion from more pressing environmental issues. While it is true that plastic bags represent only a small amount of waste, or of oil use, the reason reducing their use has become important is because they are symbolic of a different issue – respect for other species.

British retailers hand out an estimated 13 billion free plastic bags every year, they’re used for an average 12 minutes each, they take between 500-1,000 years to decay, and they break down (‘photo-degrade’) in smaller parts, which are still toxic. But the significant adverse effect is on other wildlife. Modbury, the Devon village which became the first place in the UK to ban plastic bags, puts it like this:

In the UK at least 200 million plastic bags end up as litter on our beaches, streets and parks ever year. When a plastic bag enters the ocean it becomes a harmful piece of litter. Many marine animals mistake plastic bags for food and swallow them, with painful and often fatal consequences.

It’s not a coincidence that Rebecca Hosking, who started that campaign, was (and is) a wildlife photographer who had watched the damage done when birds and sealife, as well as land mammals, eat plastic bags, or get entangled in them. These pictures are all from the Modbury site, which also has some short films.

In order: deer rooting around on a rubbish tip (in India); a crane which has wrapped itself in a plastic bag; and the slightly grisly contents of the stomach of a dead Minke whale washed up in France.

The picture of the minke whale stomach is also used on the Claire Morsman’s ‘sociable guerilla bagging‘ site, Morsbags. It uses an ‘open knowledge’ approach to sharing bag patterns to encourage people to make their own fabric bags and use them instead of plastic bags. [Update: an interesting blog post on making a morsbag.] She was inspired to launch it after finding a dead seagull on a beach in Devon with its legs trapped in a plastic bag. Morsbags lists the contents of the whale’s stomach:

  • 1 pastic/aluminium crisp packet
  • 2 English supermarket carrier bags
  • 7 various coloured plastic bag bits
  • 7 transparent plastic bags
  • 1 food packaging wrapper.

Clearly government advisers such as Chris Coggins are right to say that supermarkets need to do a lot more about packaging. But when the British Retail Federation complains about including plastic bags in the Climate Change Bill, they are on tricky ground. It’s hard for people, in their day-to-day lives to do things which are respectful of other species. Not using plastic bags is an important symbolic gesture.

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