• Plastic Bag Ban Puts Collingwood On the Map

last modified January 13, 2013 by strypey

Strypey comments on the homicidal tendancies of the humble plastic shopping bag.

During my trip to Te Wai Pounamu over summer, I was thrilled to see that the town of Collingwood in Golden Bay has declared itself a plastic shopping bag free zone! This was a major step forward for a group of local greenies who call themselves the Bag Ladies.

Some people might think I'm a bit of a softy for getting excited about a small group of women campaigning against disposable shopping bags, but they affect this planet, our the survival of life upon it, in a number of ways.

1) They are made from crude oil, a finite resource. One day this will simply not be possible. Even before then, as oil supplies dwindle, it will stop being seen as a sensible use of an increasingly scarce resource. Reusable bags made of organically-grown hemp (for example) will always be possible, and are a more efficient use of resources.

2) Crude oil must be mined, creating huge toxic messes around mining sites, that take hundreds of thousands of years to disperse - if ever. In contrast, the organic growing of fibre crops - done properly - actually enhances the life-supporting properties of an area.

3) Obviously there is the energy used to mine and transport the raw materials, to manufacture the bags, and to distribute them to retailers. Assuming you shop once a week, using two bags each time, two durable reusable bags avoid the use of 2000 disposable bags over 20 years. Even if 1 reusable bag used the same energy to produce as 1000 disposable bags (which is unlikely for reasons 1 and 2), you're still breaking even in energy use.

4) Once used for taking shopping home, and perhaps reused a few times for other purposes, disposable bags will wear out quickly and must be disposed of. Plastic can take anywhere from 15 to 1000 years to biodegrade in the environment or landfill, releasing a variety of toxins as they do. Burning them also releases a variety of toxins, some of them produced by chemical reactions at low combustion temperatures:

Incineration at a high enough temperature in a well-tuned industrial incinerator may eliminate most of these, but this requires more energy to keep the incinerator burning at the correct temperature, and to collect up all the bags and bring them to the incinerator. Such an organizational nightmare can be avoided simply by using reusable bags instead.

5) Plastic, especially in forms that can be blown about by the wind, is a persistent, lethal, pollutant! It kills animals through strangling, ingestion, and toxins released as it decomposes. These toxins also affect human health, some of them known carcinogens, such as the dioxin mentioned in the links above. Windblown plastic collects in the ocean, and there are massive floating islands of it where certain ocean currents meet:

Imagine my ecstasy then, when I stumbled across a Daily Green article that announced China was banning plastic shopping bags from June 1. Apparently China has been turning 37 million barrels of oil into them every year.

Although making things like plastic out of oil is arguably better than burning it, making disposable things out of plastic isn't much better. Plastic could be made into things which people actually *want* to last hundreds of years, parts for renewable energy systems for example, which would be carbon sinks. Of course, the best way to keep the carbon in oil out of the atmosphere is not to waste energy and make a mess pumping it out of the ground in the first place. You want plastic, grow hemp!

The transition to life without fossil fuel is inevitable, and people who are still living in denial of this obvious fact (or their children) are overdue for shocking wakeup call. It saddens me that some people seem to pick the facts that support their ideology, rather than accepting the theory that fits the available facts - which is the crux of the scientific method.

However, the Bag Ladies demonstrate that a committed group of ordinary people can make a tangible difference. If enough of us can make such small differences in our own lives, homes, neighbourhoods, and societies, they add up. If they reach critical mass, perhaps the biosphere, and even the human race, can survive this century.




Originally published on Aotearoa.Indymedia.org (August, 2008)