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Blowin' in the wind



The green lobby has succeeded in banning plastic supermarket bags. This is a government that doesn't trust that voters can decide for themselves whether or not they want a plastic-free society. In the emotive raging about plastic taking over a supposedly pristine world, there are facts that no one wants widely publicized. For example less than 1% of all plastic bags become litter, because most of us recycle them.   Research by the Australian government showed that only 2% of annual expenditure on cleaning up litter was attributable to plastic bags.   In Ireland the figure emerges that just 0.3% of waste is plastic bags.   


Neither are they much of  a problem in landfill, where the biggest problem is paper, mainly newspaper, then wood, mainly from demolition, then concrete.   Landfill operators like plastic bags because they can be burned, they can be retrieved all at once and bundled together, and if anyone is worried about CO2 they don't break down so can be considered good carbon sinks.   Plastic is very recyclable.   It can be melted down, passed through an extruder and made into plastic fence posts.


The bags do not kill animals or birds.  As to marine mammals, the main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands.  Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag.  The impact of bags on whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals ranges from nil for most species to very minor for perhaps a few species.  Yet you see the same old pictures of the same animals eating the same plastic bags repeated over and over, or a poor dolphin with his head accidentally caught in a bag.  Many more of these creatures get tangled in set nets, yet not so many pictures of them make the alarmist news. Plastic bags have been around now for nearly 40 years, so where are all the other pictures?


Plastic bags are biodegradable.  Polyethylene melts at 280°.  Glass has to be heated to 700 °  to recycle it.  In the sea, the sun, waves and wind break plastic bags down.  A bigger problem is from nurdles, the plastic debris discarded from factory wastes.  And the molecular plastic beads used as filler in pharmaceutical  creams and lotions, which are getting into our food chain via fish. But that can easily be fixed by responsible health legislation. That problem is not the plastic but the power the pharmaceutical lobby groups wield over governments. 

Plastic bags are recyclable.  Compare the cartons and containers of milk and yoghurt etc to the glass jar containers which plastic replaced.  Glass takes as much energy to recycle as to make.  Plastic uses 100 times less energy to recycle as to make.  Plastic is so cheap to make, all over the world they give bags away at street markets, at which some items are sold at even less than 10c. It is the universal courtesy of retail to supply plastic bags. They make shopping so convenient.


Do the bags use up resources?  Hardly.  A pinhead of oil is all it takes to manufacture 1 plastic supermarket bag.  One teaspoonful would make 1300 bags, which means if you shopped every day for 3.5 years, received a bag and threw it away (assuming you didn't recycle it as most do) the amount of oil used in that whole 3.5 years worth of bags is only one teaspoonful.  One 600ml Coke bottle weighs the equivalent of 30-50 plastic bags but no one is calling Coke bottles a social evil.  One cup of oil is needed to make one disposable nappy on the landfill - in terms of oil represents 150,000 plastic bags.  At the rate of buying one bag a day and throwing it away, you'd have to shop for 400 years before those discarded bags equaled one nappy in the oil that was used.


How do paper bags compare?  Greenhouse gases emitted in producing a paper bag are 5 times greater than those from producing a plastic bag.  Paper bags are 6-7 times as bulky, so 6-7 times heavier, and require more transport fuel because the ratio of trucks is now 7:1, in other words if paper replaced plastic then 7 times more trucks would fill the highways in delivering the bags to the stores, producing 7 times the emissions. Plus, paper bags fall apart after 1 use.  

From the store to the car in the rain would mean paper bags would be useless. Paper bags rot and release more greenhouse gases.  We are constantly told that that is something we're trying to avoid.  Paper bags use up trees, and the industry is filthy because when they do rot quickly they encourage rats. Rats spread diseases. Because paper bags are more expensive to produce, watch the price of groceries go up. This will hurt the poor who already have prohibitive grocery bills.


It is no accident that plastic bags have evolved.  There is a reason we use them.  They are hygienic, handy and hardy.  Plastic is healthy because it retains juices and prevents contamination.  It is not perfect and some chemicals may leach out into water in drink bottles, but overall our health would suffer more if plastic was banned.  Who will front the extra medical bills from salmonella?  When every supermarket item from meat through to cheese and each loaf of bread is covered in some form of plastic wrap, and nearly all solids are sealed in plastic cartons and even paid for using plastic notes, it is hard to see how the non-use of the one final bag at the checkout alters the universal use of this material.  If we outlaw plastic, where are we going to start?


If fundraising for charities is the focus, then the question may be asked why it is not done purely in the name of charities and not in the name of the environment, because that science simply isn't there.  There are more realistic goals.  We could improve and increase our rubbish collections.  Many suburbs are only allowed one bin or one rubbish bag.  We could introduce refund systems for bottles and bags, as of twenty years ago.  When I was a child one never saw discarded soda or milk bottles lying in gutters when return of them fetched 4 pence for the small and 8 pence for the large.  


We could introduce vending machines so people can get refills to shampoo bottles etc.  We should be tackling packaging waste, because so much is unnecessary.  Often we find products in sealed bags within boxes and the surrounding box also has a plastic shrink-wrap covering.  We could bring down the cost of fuel to get the country moving again, bringing about more jobs and more productivity.  We could take away regulations and permit systems all which stifle economic growth.  We could establish a consumer watchdog department that stood outside of state-funded science which is now more political that knowledge-based.  Perhaps this would enable projects to progress in a cost-effective manner.  


Banning plastic bags will solve nothing, if we allow plastic to be everywhere else in the food container industry. Charging 10c each for them is a rip-off when they cost the supermarket 1/40 of a cent each. If you shopped every day for a big family, and needed 5 bags for your groceries, at 10c each that adds nearly $200 yearly to a poor family's grocery bill. Why not make paying 10c per bag a donation, for those who feel so strongly about it? Obviously because most of us would not pay, because we do not see it as a problem needing to be fixed. There are more important challenges, like how do we retrieve the power we once enjoyed to make our own informed choices in a free society?  That answer may be blowing in the wind.

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