Cities in a number of Asian countries, including China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan, are currently on the warpath against plastic shopping bags.
The cities have passed local laws that ban such bags, on the basis that they clog sewers and drainage canals, cause street flooding, choke animals and are responsible for other forms of environmental damage.
China and Taiwan, for example, impose heavy fines on violators. Other countries are appealing for a switch to the production and use of biodegradable bags.
But this misses the point. People do not object to using biodegradable bags, and consider them a welcome return to the traditional practice of using shopping baskets and bags made from locally available materials — such as jute, abaca and cloth — that are less harmful to the environment.
What needs to be remembered is that plastic bags were made for a purpose, and that the main complaint is against the way that they are used — not their existence.
A multi-use product
Plastic bags were designed to satisfy a need. Thin plastic can do many things that paper, which is recommended as a good substitute for plastic, cannot. Indeed, there are ways in which thin plastic may be more useful than paper.
For example, plastic bags are widely appreciated for their use in wrapping food, and holding water and other wet goods. They are also useful as a protective lining for rubbish bins, as a protective wrap for delicate clothing material, or as a way of temporarily sealing roof and tap leaks.
These and many other functions make the plastic bag a versatile, practical invention of the twentieth century.
Another advantage of the plastic bag is that it is reusable. Although some plastic bags are too thin for reuse, the solution is to manufacture stronger and more durable plastic film bags, not discard them altogether.
One reason that plastic film bags are widely seen as an environmental nuisance is that most are non-biodegradable. But if they were manufactured from a biodegradable material — such as the bioplastics that are now being produced in some European countries — the main reason for banning them would disappear.
Even with a change of material, however, there is no guarantee that environmental damage from plastics would stop. This is because the 'evil' is not in the material used, but in the behaviour of those who do not know — or do not care — where, when and how to dispose of the product.
Moreover, governments cannot ignore the contribution to the economy of the thin plastics industry.
Australia, for example, has decided to reduce the use of HDPE (high-density polyethylene) thin plastic bags but not ban them because of the negative impact it would have on employment.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, the plastics industry similarly generates hundreds of thousands of jobs in China, Malaysia and Thailand, which in 2005 jointly exported to the 239 million tonnes of plastic bags to the United States.
Good environmental management is key
The answer to the problems associated with thin plastic bag use is not a ban, but better management. The 3Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — of solid waste management (SWM) also apply to plastic bags.
But only a few countries in Asia have sound SWM systems, even though all of them have regulations on solid waste. This is a result of a general misconception that managing is the same as regulating.
Managing plastic bags means knowing how to use and store them properly so that they can be reused many times, and knowing how they can be recycled when their useful life has come to an end.
Guidelines on how to use, maintain, reuse, recover and recycle plastic bags are necessary, and recycling technologies for thin plastic bags are now widely available.
The guidelines should extend to the application of appropriate technologies for disposal when the materials have reached their ultimate limit for reuse and recycling.
Many materials need to be managed if they are not to harm the environment. Indeed, if not properly managed, paper can be a worse polluter than plastic bags; it occupies nine times as much space in landfills, and does not break down substantially faster than plastic.
The need for enforcement
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, paper bags generate 70 per cent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, because four times as much energy is required to produce them and 85 times as much energy to recycle them.
Indeed, as with anything that is designed for a purpose, both paper and plastic bags need to be managed to sustain their usefulness and prevent them from disrupting the balance in our ecosystems.
Regulating the use of plastic bags is necessary. But regulations are not enough; their enforcement is more important.
Banning plastic bags dismisses them as useless, and disregards their practical functionality, durability and affordability.
It is the misuse and improper disposal of plastic bags that is causing harm to the environment, not the product itself. A total ban on plastic bags will only gloss over the lack of an effective environmental management policy in a given country. It will not save the environment from the ill-effects of a 'throw-away' mentality.
Lilia Casanova is a former deputy director at the UN Environment Programme's International Environmental Technology Centre (UNEP-IETC) in Japan. She is currently the executive director of the Center for Advanced Philippine Studies, and a board member of the Solid Waste Management Association of the Philippines.
Plastic shopping bags. They certainly serve a purpose. They are cheap and easy to produce and their light weight makes them ideal to keep shipping costs down. Reused, they make great liners for small trash cans or a convenient way to carry all sorts of things. But an image I will never forget was the very first time I visited a landfill and saw plastic bags clearly visible in every nearby tree looking somewhat a layer of spider webs. Years later, I learned that one of our local landfills even trained a monkey to climb the trees and retrieve these pesky air blown things! It’s not just a problem in landfills. You see them virtually everywhere; on roadsides, stuck in shrubbery and telephone wires, and in bodies of water. Yuck.
Of course, litter is not the only environmental concern with these and obviously this is not a new issue. But, I found it interesting to learn that plastic bags were once seen as the more environmentally friendly alternative to paper bags. More recent reports seem to find both equally as bad and conclude that using reusable bags instead is the much better choice environmentally. The energy and resources required to make just one plastic bag might not be terribly significant, but why are we mass producing and using so many in this country? To me that is the bigger concern.
On June 18th, Los Angeles adopted an ordinance banning the use of plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and some retailers. This will make Los Angeles the largest city in the United States to implement a single-use ban. Though California has been among the most progressive states in enacting environmental policy, Los Angeles is not alone in banning plastic shopping bags. Chicago, Aspen, and Eugene, Oregon have also implemented similar bans. Many others are also looking into charging a fee on bags. To most in the United States this seems like a drastic measure. However, it’s common practice among many European countries. The cultural norm is you bring your bag with you when you go shopping, or you often have to pay for one at the store. It makes perfect sense, after all plastic bags are not free. But here in the United States where putting items in a bag when purchased is common practice (often even if you are only purchasing one item that could easily be carried out), we don’t think about the cost because the cost is already included in everything we purchase! We are paying for it, like it or not.
Because of the cultural norm being so different in the U.S., naturally there is a lot of resistance in this country for a ban. Other states, like New York, have tried the less progressive approach to increase the recycling of plastic bags by requiring retailers to offer a recycling programs to their customers. The effectiveness of these programs is questionable and don’t reduce the number of plastic bags produced.
Colleges and Universities have looked at the issue. Tufts, California State University of Long Beach, University of Oregon, and Ithaca College have all lobbied to ban bags and actively encourage the use of reusable bags. Earlier this year, the University of Rochester’s Team Green began a similar campaign to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. Although there was some support, those who were against this idea were quite adamant. You will see quite the debate in the comments of our blog post on the topic. I wonder if there would be the same amount of push-back for a ban on bags? I tend to think that people are a bit more passionate when it comes to food and beverages. But, there is definitely a large number of people who believe in their right to choose and want to preserve that right, regardless of what the issue is. A strict ban on anything would be out of the question for these invidiuals.
Perhaps a compromise could be reached at the University some day, or a campaign to promote reusable bags on campus will begin. Plastic bags are most definitely ending up in our waste stream and we pay to have them hauled to a landfill. A few small student initiatives to collect and recycle bags have been formed, with not much impact. In my opinion, the way to be more successful is through source reduction. While I do not believe that banning plastic bags altogether is the ultimate answer, I’m all for doing it in campus setting.