1 Jan 2010

Should Stroud go plastic bag free?

Well a very happy new year to all. I actually started this blog post many months ago and I never quite managed to finish and indeed it is now a rough ramble with bits that might well be out of date. I was trying to cover too many issues about the plastic bag in one post - including whether they are a distraction to the real issues and the alternatives...and whether paper is better than plastic? Plus where is the world's largest waste site? Well here the blog post is for all it's sins it kicks off 2010....

John Marjoram, when he was Mayor, started the drive to reduce the number of plastic carrier bags used in Stroud (see here) - there has recently also been the launch of a bag-free pledge for the town known as ‘The Stroud Charter’ as another step on route.

Stroud Town have been working hard on a campaign to join other towns in the UK who have already made the move to plastic bag-free. This last month Wales has affirmed it's plans to cut bag use by taxing plastic bags - see here.

Every year around 13 billion plastic bags are given away to UK shoppers - some previous estimates put plastic bag use at over 290 for every person in the UK. Many of these end up being dumped on landfill sites, where experts believe they can take up to 1,000 years to break down. As we are increasingly being made aware, the environmental impact of discarded plastic is devastating, with many plastic bags ending up as waste in our seas, on our beaches, streets and parks - indeed the couple of photos below have been reproduced many times along with numerous others to highlight the plight of wildlife. Indeed a whale washed up off the coast of France had 800 kilos of plastic bags in its stomach!

Indeed they have been dubbed "roadside daisies" in South Africa and some now even mournfully refer to them as the country's national flower! In Ireland, they are known as "witches' knickers" because they flap like satanic underwear in trees - indeed there were some photos in Stroud this last month capturing this 'photogenic' aspect of plastic bags!

To play our part in easing the burden the Town Council, the District Council and Stroud Chamber of Trade and Commerce have joined forces to help promote a new Charter for Stroud with the aim of raising awareness of the impact that the continued use of plastic bags has on our environment, and to encourage shoppers to actively think about the way they carry their shopping.

As part of the scheme they will be encouraging local businesses to join in helping reduce the use of plastic bags in Stroud with a target of reducing use by at least 50% before May 2010. We have seen the District Council, on behalf of the Town Council has sourced a re-usable hessian bag as an alternative to plastic. The bags carry a 'Shop Local' message and have been available to customers for £1. Meanwhile many local businesses have also signed up and have their own alternatives to plastic. Shops signing up to the Charter are being asked to display The Stroud Charter poster in their windows: 'The Stroud Charter: working towards a plastic bag-free town'.

Modbury did it first

Modbury became the first in Europe to reject plastic bags in its shops. Rebecca Hosking’s film was the inspiration for Modbury becoming the first town in England to phase out plastic bags and shows the effect of plastic on wildlife, including how an albatross had picked up plastic drifting in the sea mistaking it for squid and then feeding it to its chicks.

People said it wouldn't last, yet the self-imposed ban by the 40-odd shopkeepers has held firm and led to many others seeking to ditch what has been described as 'the eponymous symbol of the throwaway society'. The news of Modbury's success has even made it back to Hawaii and the island of Maui, where a film was made of upsetting footage of plastic bags killing marine animals. Maui itself is in the process of passing making the island and its 125,000 residents plastic bag-free within three years.

Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire has already become the second town to stop handing out plastic bags after four women calling themselves the Bag Ladies convinced nearly all the town's 104 traders that plastic was passé.

The National Trust has already managed to cut its plastic bags by 95% after starting levying a five pence charge as part of a drive to make its’ properties more environmentally friendly.

Brighton also looks set to go plastic bag free, while 33 boroughs in London agreed unanimously to create a city-wide ban on all throwaway bags but then pulled out in response to the Government plans to try and reduce bags (see here) - and the islands of Mull, Arran and Guernsey, are racing to become the first plastic bag-free island in the world ahead of Maui. In South Africa the legislation threatens imprisonment for violations! Indeed across the globe various moves are being made.

In Ireland, who were one of the first to tackle bags, a tax of 15 cents per bag resulted in a 90% drop in plastic bag usage, and raised 3.5 million Euros which was spent on environmental projects. San Francisco, Greens pushed through a ban on all non-recyclable plastic bags at major supermarkets and pharmacies and it is estimated that this ban alone will reduce oil consumption by nearly 800,000 gallons per annum. Bangladesh has banned polythene bags altogether while Taiwan and Singapore are taking steps to discourage their use.

A student from Mumbai, India noted to a Green colleague that floods there had caused a huge amount of damage and plastic bags clogging up drains were a huge contributory factor and as a result the city has banned plastic bags.

China has also announced a ban on super-thin plastic bags in the country as well as a fee for other plastic bags. A notice on a Government website said: "Our country consumes huge amounts of plastic bags every year. While providing convenience to consumers, they have also caused serious pollution and waste of energy and resources because of excessive use and inadequate recycling." The notice suggested widespread use of cloth bags and baskets instead. Penalties for rule flouters, including manufacturers of plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimeters thick, include fines and other penalties. Up to 3 billion plastic bags a day are used in China. China has seen the closure of one of the world's largest plastic-bag factories, with the loss of 20,000 jobs, due to the government's concern about "white pollution".

Is the plastic bag campaign a distraction?

Of course minimising plastic bag use is desirable - however I do see a bit of a problem in that the Government (and many retailers) are happy to shout about this because it provides cover for not doing far more important things. They put out press releases, appear on the telly etc and get plaudits for reducing a visible, but in the grand scheme of things minor, environmental problem.

Too many think they are green by refusing plastic bags, buying organic food and cycling the odd trip. Do plastic bag free towns actually reduce pressure for people to act on more serious issues? We need much more fundamental changes. Plastic bags only represent a tiny fraction of the waste stream by weight or by volume. For example, in the US they account for less than half a percent of domestic refuse.

In Ireland, following the small tax on each bag as noted above, plastic bag use went down 90%. However binliner use went up over 300%. Binliners are heavier than plastic bags and not taxed. However overall plastic use is still down but not as much as sometimes argued - and there has been almost no change in import figures for plastic to Ireland.

Another effect of the tax was to encourage an increased reliance on paper bags which, according to a number of life-cycle analysis studies that have compared the environmental performance of various types of bags, can require more energy to manufacture and release more greenhouse gases when degrading following their disposal! More on that in a mo...

It isn't the plastic bags but what is inside them that counts!

Of course as I noted above - the plastic bag is only a small part of the problem - it is not the bags that are the issue - it's what's inside them. If the consumer fills their organic-hemp-bags-for-life with Pacific tuna and air-freighted kiwi-fruit, and salad crops in December, they're not solving any problems by buying into the greenwash - they're still part of the bigger problems. Plastic bags are not our most pressing issue by a long long way. It is our consumption...

So what to think?

James Lovelock has referred to the current obsession with plastic bags as "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic".

Danny Kennedy, the campaigns manager for Greenpeace Australia-Pacific said: "I see the case of reusable bags as fairly superficial, but also very useful..The best thing about the plastic bag campaign is that people recognized the ecological world view; that everything is linked. It's also very empowering that so many people have engaged, and so quickly. If that's people's first entry point into taking action, then it's fantastic. Their first taste is a win. But governments can't think that's the only thing."

Chris Goodall, the author of "How to Live a Low Carbon Life, and Ten Technologies to Save the Planet" says: "It's the carbon content of what goes into your plastic bags, not the plastic bags themselves, that we should be worrying about. This is 100% more important than, say, the amount of oil used to make one plastic bag. Plastic bags are a litter issue – yes, they certainly cause great damage to marine life – but they are frequently seen as a carbon issue. They are not. They are an easy target because they are one of the most visible environmental problems. But this doesn't make them the most important environmental issue. Many assume that recycling is the answer to the waste problem, rather than simply consuming less. It's not an easy message for many people to accept. Worrying about plastic bags also gives the illusion that small steps make a difference. This kind of radical change in thinking will take a generation."

View from a campaigner:
"My personal view is that the disposable plastic bag is the icon of our unsustainable lifestyles. I know that removing plastic bags from our lives won't make us a sustainable culture anymore than saving the polar bear will stop global warming. However, plastic bags and polar bears will make us all stop and think about the bigger picture."

Another view from a campaigner: "Plastic bags are widely recognised as an environmental menace, both as non-biodegradable waste and as a profligate form of oil consumption. The UK needs to legislate to curb this most ubiquitous symbol of consumerist short-termism."

And my view?

Well at the end of the day plastic bags are the ultimate symbol of our throwaway culture and it is right that they should be targeted but let us not get distracted from the wider issues - this must only be the start of much wider changes.

So what is the most sustainable thing to do? If we do use plastic then heavy duty multi-use plastic bags with closed-loop recycling. Charge for the bags, and give a refund when they are recycled. All of a sudden, they have a positive value - and they don't get thrown away. However plastic is still plastic - what about the alternatives...more in a mo on that....

Alternatives to the bag?

See where it all started with the first Plastic Bag free town with Rebecca Hosking in Modbury, Devon here with excellent stuff on her website about the alternatives here to plastic bags. In a letter I wrote to local press more than a couple of years ago I made a similar point about needing to take care about what we replace it with:

You report that the newly launched limited edition 'Anya Hindmarch' designer bags were sold out within 10 minutes at Sainsbury's in Stroud (27/04/07). The bag has a great logo with an important message: 'I'm not a plastic bag'. Sadly it is made from pesticide-sprayed, fertiliser-grown, intensively-irrigated Indian cotton: a crop which is causing untold damage to ecosytems and the Indian people alike. There are many sustainable alternatives to both plastic and this cotton. We don't need this 'greenwash' from Sainsbury's. Apparently one customer even had his new Hindmarch bag put inside a plastic bag! It is time instead we had real action in this country to cut our plastic use and end the disposal costs of some eight billion bags a year. Buried plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to decompose while a whale washed up off the coast of France had 800 kilos of plastic bags in its stomach! San Francisco has just banned all non-recyclable plastic bags at major supermarkets and pharmacies. Similar bans are in place in South Africa, Taiwan, Bangladesh and Paris. In this country many including the Green party and some local authorities want to see a tax on plastic bags. When the Irish did this they reduced their use by 95%! A MORI survey in this country shows 63% support a tax. Let's do it.

The first plastic "baggies" were introduced in the US in 1957. Now one million are handed out every minute, according to We Are What We Do, the not-for-profit group that was the driving force behind the Anya Hindmarch-designed reusable bag mentioned above. It is time we looked seriously at the alternatives.

Paper vs Plastic?

This section was adapted from a recent debate amongst some colleagues.....

It is first necessary to understand what happens when someone decides to make no further use of the bag. Plastic bags can in principle be reused many times more than paper ones.

In terms of environmental damage and pollution from the manufacturing process it would appear that plastic can be shown to be better than paper - that is on average - there are a lot of factors - but paper manufacture is a pretty dirty process. A University of Winnipeg study for example concluded that in their manufacture "paper bags are twice as energy intensive as a plastic one".

Paper bags are in principle more easily recyclable than plastic - both can be recycled, but both seldom are. Pretty even here. Although there is evidence to show that plastic bags contaminate our recycling stream, and dozens of people are needed to pull them off the conveyors, lest they jam the machinery.

In terms of disposal then plastic hangs around in the environment much longer and can do much more damage - this was the starting point for the plastic-bag-free town movement from Modbury already mentioned. Paper wins this round - it can also be composted. But what if this paper ends up in a landfill site? Well, it will degrade and you'll get methane produced. Maybe as much as 80% of methane produced in your average landfill site will get caught and burned
in a landfill gas engine, thus displacing fossil fuels at the cost of [we would hope] renewable CO2. But the other 20% will leak out and have an impact 20-23 times as great [landfill gas has a much larger Climate Change Potential than CO2.] In this case, we might be better off using
plastic as it just sits there and doesn't cause any more damage...

In terms of resource use both can use a recycled component, but the raw feedstock for plastic is of course a totally non-renewable resource. Again paper probably wins - but where is the pulp coming from - sustainably managed forests, or non-renewable forests?

Whats best?

So overall its a moot point. The best solution is perhaps unbleached fair-traded organic cotton (or jute) printed with good inks re-usable bags and then getting shopkeepers to use cornstarch bags for items requiring wet-wrap (fish, meat, hot items etc). Cornstarch performs
well but is about 10 times the price of plastic. Yes there are all sorts of problems with cornstarch - but for those items that need a wet-wrap it is an alternative - not for everything.
Our grandparents used to get meat and fish wrapped in paper by the butcher/fishmonger but a butcher tells me they can no longer get suitable paper and/or are not allowed to. See link mentioned above at the Modbury website on alternatives.

However as I've noted above perhaps most important of all plastic bags are symbolic of our wasteful society - we are in need of clear breaks with the waste society of the last few decades, and bags are something almost our whole society uses. Getting folk to question their packaging raises awareness and may make people more aware of other things they throw away.

Biodegradable plastic the answer?

In short, no. While bio plastics have an application in modern life (especially in farming), they are limited in their effect. They require high temperatures, a very specific pH and high levels of light to decompose, but such conditions rarely occur in natural environments, let alone sea, where there are lower temperatures and levels of sunlight. In an ocean environment, as in a landfill, biodegradable plastic will remain intact, causing damage to wildlife and ecosystems for many years.

What have others to say?

In California there is a campaign called 'The Bay versus The Bag' - see it here with videos and good info. Even the Daily Mail had a campaign against plastic bags - see here. There is also an excellent abolish plastic bags website and even a international day - see here - and even perhaps more surprisingly a save the plastic bag campaign site - see here for some interesting info that ultimately fails to persuade. To read Green party's Derek Wall's blog on this issue "To avoid danger of suffocation" see here. Justin King, chief executive of Sainsbury's writes here. Lastly a poem here about plastic bags.

Time to mine our seas for plastic?

This map shows how oceans suffer in graphic detail with all but 3.7 percent of the world's oceans affected by humans and some 41 percent of seas heavily affected by human activity (see original map here).

Threats, include climate change, overfishing, fertilizer runoff, coastal development, and shipping pollution. Researchers found only a few small areas near both poles remain relatively pristine - though, according to one coauthor, "they are not untouched." Plastic is one aspect of the human activity and you can see here an extraordinary article about mining the sea for plastic which could then be used via pyrolysis to convert to diesel!

What's the world's biggest landfill?

Well it covers an area at least a quarter of a million square miles... nearly three times the size of the UK. It's actually a slick of human debris in the sea, floating around in the Pacific starting from around 500 miles off the west coast of the US (see Schnews article here). It's caused by rubbish that gets caught up by spiraling underwater ocean currents, called a gyre, which draw it in from all around and trap it into a floating layer of filth near the surface of the ocean. SchNews suggest it might have been named by a Star Trek fan - the phenomenon has not been named 'Garbage Gyre' but given the more frightening tag of 'Trash Vortex'.
In 1979, the manufacture of plastic overtook that of steel. Today we use 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago. Each year, 100 million tonnes of plastic are used worldwide. We each dispose of 185lb of plastic every year.
Here is what SchNews said: Just how big it is a matter of hot debate. While many organisations cite it as being around the size of Texas, Charles Moore, the American oceanographer credited with first discovering it, has recently been quoted as claiming that it's now twice the size as continental United States, extending nearly all the way to Japan. Either way, its staggeringly big... Whilst some of the junk is stuff dumped by boats of one sort or another or off oil platforms, 80% of it originates from the land. It's caused by wind and rain taking trash from the land (and indeed landfills) into rivers, people dumping along the coasts, poor sewage treatment and waste from industry. Just how many millions of tons a year the Konsumer Kings of Krap discard into their vortex may be unknown, but with Californians alone using 19 billion plastic bags a year, there's no shortage of waste to go round. In fact around 90% of human pollution in the sea is plastic and this is far from fantastic news for sea-dwelling organisms and the ocean ecosystems. Made from a process using that ol' war-causing fossil fuel, oil, plastic is toxic to marine life and indestructible. While most plastics only officially take up to hundreds of years to degrade', the truth is they never actually chemically break down and return to the ecosystem at all - they just disintegrate into ever smaller pieces, making a deadly plastic dust. And it doesn't always have to wait so long to be dust; billions of tiny plastic pellets, called nurdles - the raw materials for the plastic industry - are lost or spilled every year, many ending up in the sea. These act like chemical sponges, soaking up other toxic man-made chemicals, all artificial pollutants (for toxicity think DDT pesticide etc), concentrating them up to a million times more than in normal sea water. Trawls of the Pacific vortex have revealed that for every pound of proto-plankton, the foundation of the marine ecosystem, in a given volume of water, there are six pounds of plastic waste. Plastic is therefore a catastrophic threat to the world's seas as stuff chucked away anytime in the last fifty years is still out there degrading somewhere. Waste caught up in the trash vortex, the gyre currents keeping it suspended in a plastic 'soup' near to the surface, is only the thin end of the widget. Around 70% of marine plastic waste sinks straight to the sea floor where it can slowly choke plant life and the animals that feed on it, unseen. According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, with countless fish and more than 100,000 whales, seals and turtles. Greenpeace have identified at least 267 separate species known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris. And before we get too cocky about how green and caring Europe is compared to their uncouth American cousins... they may not have vortices, but the North Sea is one of the most polluted seas in the world and the Mediterranean is the most plastic-polluted sea by density on the planet. Whether serious attempts to do anything about our constant adding to an already critical problem will really materialise before climate change or economic collapse give us a helping hand is anyone's guess (you can guess what we'd guess) - and so much damage has already been done. With respected journal 'Science' projecting that Earth's stocks of fish and seafood will collapse by 2048 if trends in overfishing and pollution continue, it looks like we're all gonna be sea sick soon.

For more from Greenpeace here. I think that is enough about plastic bags - if you got this far well done indeed!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post - despite being a 'ramble' I learnt lots!

Anonymous said...

That was an incredibly long blog...but by the very fact I got through it shows it was interesting.

Michael said...

Banning plastic bags is an emotive issue, but it is a very bad idea.
See http://www.biodeg.org/position-papers/Plastic-bag-bans/?domain=biodeg.org

Philip Booth said...

Number of plastic bags given to customers in leading UK supermarkets has fallen for 4th year in a row, despite 6% increase in sales volumes.