The plastic bag puzzle

s the ubiquitous plastic bag a sign of pending environmental disaster?

Is the ubiquitous plastic bag a sign of pending environmental disaster?

Maybe not, in the near term, but it’s a simple example of how convenience, science and consumerism can overrun good sense. And the plastic bag certainly carries a high — and growing — economic and environmental price tag:

• Worldwide, at least 500 million plastic bags are distributed annually. A ticker at reusablebags.com shows just how resolute our consumption really is.

• As few as one per cent of plastic bags are recycled, and many communities — including Red Deer — don’t include the bags in their recycling programs. For recycling programs to be successful, there has to be a ready market, and simple, cost-effective process to render the product useful. Some retailers do, however, take the bags back from consumers. But the recycling process wastes significant energy and creates significant pollution.

• It takes as long as 1,000 years for plastic bags to biodegrade, and even then they don’t completely reintegrate with the soil.

• It takes 1.63 million litres of oil to produce 100 million plastic bags. That’s a lot of oil to devote to products that often have a single use and end up either in landfills or dotting the landscape in an unsightly fashion.

• Manufacturing and recycling of plastic bags consumes huge resources; each bag costs two to three cents to manufacture.

• Plastic bags have become a huge marine life threat. A recent UN Environment Program report, Marine Litter: A Global Challenge, cites plastic as the single largest waste threat to marine life. UN official Achim Steiner calls marine litter as “symptomatic of a wider malaise: namely the wasteful use and persistent poor management of natural resources.”

• The millions of bags we don’t choose to reuse or recycle end up in landfills or elsewhere. A coastal cleanup in 2003 collected 354,000 plastic bags worldwide. Bangladesh flooding has been exacerbated by widespread bag-clogged drains.

• Plastic bags are often so flimsy as to not be reusable — if you are even able to get your groceries safely home in them.

So what has been done to combat this growing infestation of plastic bags? There are plenty of first steps:

• A growing number of communities (Leaf Rapids, Man.; Peterborough, Ont.; San Francisco, and large parts of Alaska) and countries (South Africa, Bangladesh, China) have issued outright bans.

• Other communities and countries have established levies that effectively dissuade consumers from using the bags. Ireland’s levy cut use by 90 per cent.

• Some nations and cities have tried voluntary measures. Australia’s government program to encourage reduction has been an overwhelming success.

• And some retailers have stopped supplying plastic bags in some markets (Ikea) or replaced plastic bags with biodegradable bags (Mountain Equipment Co-op).

• Many retailers now make cloth bags available, and others offer paper bags as an alternative. Many consumers happily take cloth bags with them to shop.

So which solutions offer the best hope?

• Cloth bags can carry disease and bacteria if not washed regularly, but they make the most sense if you care for them. But be careful about what they are made of and where they were made; jute, for example, is imported, so requires significant resources and fuel to transport to our market, and may have been created in unfair work conditions.

• Biodegradeable bags, made of starch materials like corn, offer a greener alternative. But they cost as much as five times the price of plastic bags to manufacture, with significant energy used in the process. And they’re no more durable.

• Paper bags are easier to recycle and are biodegradeable. But studies show that emissions and water pollution are higher in the manufacture, as is the solid waste and energy use.

Ultimately, the choices should be left to consumers, and communities. Despite suggestions that broader bans should be imposed, it would be impolitic for provincial or federal governments to shut down whole plastic bag manufacturing industries in a time of economic crisis.

Better that Canadians, and Central Albertans, learn to make choices that benefit the environment and protect their families’ and communities’ resources.

A gradual reduction in the use of plastics would still ultimately render the bag industry obsolete. But it would do it in a more humane fashion.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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