Plastic bags: So easy to substitute and so difficult to get rid of

Thursday, 30 March 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



Lately very encouraging news was published related to an increased number of countries and cities banning non-reusable plastic bags. Amongst them, Kenya and Delhi. 

Currently Botswana, Eritrea, Kenya, Mauritania, Morocco, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Myanmar, Taiwan, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Switzerland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, some states of the US, Canada and Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Argentina, Samoa, Somalia, Philippines, Japan, Turkey, Ethiopia, Belgium, South Korea, Singapore, Sweden, Bhutan and Malta have either banned or imposed a tax on non-reusable plastic bags. Where for some countries the ban/tax refers to the entire nation, others are limited to certain locations within the country. 



Single-use plastic items

Now why all this effort? Where some types of plastic are of important use for daily life and included in long-lasting products such as electronics, kitchen ware or cars, single-use plastic items are very much unnecessary and do not provide large benefit to everyday life. 

For example, single-use plates, cutlery, straws or plastic bags have a very short lifetime when used, however an enormous lifespan related to their biodegradability (campaigners mention that such items only decompose after 1,000 years). 

Where one might argue that such items are useful for catering or functions, there are nowadays enough alternatives available which are cheaper in terms of production cost as well as much better in their environmental impact. Alternatives include plant-based plates and cutlery for example. In terms of straws, first of all, most of the straws are more of an accessory to the drink than really necessary. 90% of drinks and soft drinks can be consumed from the glass or bottle without a straw. If it is really needed, there are reusable steel straws available which first of all look much better than the plastic straws, are hygienic and reusable.

Non-reusable plastic bags however are for sure the most unnecessary and most impactful waste product currently available. First, these plastic bags are very thin, which means that many of them are already torn before they are being used; this can be seen in supermarkets where consumers try to open them or use them and accidently break them. 

Second, they often come in sizes which do not make any sense: is it really necessary to pack one shampoo or one cigarette pack into a tiny, single plastic bag? Third, many fruits and vegetables as well as grains are weighed in plastic bags in the supermarkets were price stickers are pasted onto the plastic bag to close it. During opening the bag naturally tears because of the sticker, and thus it is thrown away immediately after the groceries are brought home. 

Fourth, in Sri Lanka the bags are used at the cashier to separate different products, therefore a large number of these bags are given to each customer, where even for a small purchase one is left with at least five bags. Each customer at each purchase ends up with a number of non-reusable plastic bags where half of them are disposed after unpacking the groceries and the other half might be used to collect the household’s garbage.


Suffocating the planet

One Green Planet summarises it perfectly: “There’s no denying it. Single-use disposable plastic bags are suffocating the planet, with 60,000 plastic bags being consumed in the US every five seconds. They are made using non-renewable resources, either petroleum or natural gas. They take huge amounts of energy to manufacture, transport across the country, and recycle. They don’t break down in landfill sites (due to lack of oxygen and light- nothing does), but over time they release dangerous chemicals. They’re incredibly difficult to recycle, causing problems such as blocking the sorting equipment used by most recycling facilities. They contribute to a widespread, global litter problem. And that’s not all.”

Many of these bags are burned together with garden waste such as leaves, or eaten by cows, stray dogs and cats, end up in the sea and water streams or in landfill. It is estimated that per year one million sea birds and 100,000 mammals are killed by plastic bags which end up in the ocean. Who has not seen the endless amount of bags on the side of the road, on the beaches or the rivers? 

Now if those plastic bags were so useful, they would not be thrown away. However they have no value, and this is also perceived by the customer. In Sri Lanka they are handed out for free, in any shop, kade or supermarket. One is almost forced to take these bags even for the tiniest purchase. It is perceived as convenience by many and demanded from the shops. However once purchased, it is thrown away. 

Single use plastic bags are outdated! No one needs them anymore! Therefore we also need a change in Sri Lanka and learn from the list of countries who have taken the necessary steps to put an end to this product. 

Where as a matter of fact the producing industry will face a loss in terms of selling this product, for them it might be a good opportunity too to divert from this production and think of future, sustainably useful products such as (fully) biodegradable plastic bags or reusable cotton bags. Any industry which is nowadays producing one way plastic items needs to ask itself how lasting their success is going to be given the global shift towards a less wasteful society. It would be a good time to think already now of suitable alternatives.


Charging consumers for bags 

There is the possibility of charging consumers for bags such as reusable plastic bags, cotton bags, or paper bags; there is no point in charging consumers for the thin non-reusable plastic bags which one can find now in the stores, such bags should be banned all together. 

Consumers can also be rewarded by the store for bringing their own bags, such a system is practiced by some of the grocery stores in Colombo currently. However the amount rewarded is so small that it might not be enough incentive for a consumer to bring their own bags. Also in addition there needs to be an alternative for weighing the fruits, vegetables and grains. In earlier years this was done in paper bags, however it can also be done with the items only without having to separate them into different bags first. Once everything is weighed, one paper bag can be given to pack the items.

Such activities need to be directed from the top level of administration, if it is tax incentives or taxes on plastic bags, as well as the ban of bags. In addition the main retail chains could also team up and stop using the plastic bags, however offer reusable bags for purchase and reward those consumers who bring their own bags. To be successful it has to be a coordinated effort amongst the supermarkets. In addition the media can support by raising awareness on the harm or the one way plastic bags onto the environment and finally onto our own health.

A small survey conducted recently by a Sri Lankan NGO which focuses on plastic waste showed that the average consumer is completely unaware of the harm of single-use plastic including the harm of burning such items. There is little awareness on the toxic substances released when burning plastic waste. Therefore much more effort is needed in informing the public about the risks associated as well as about suitable alternatives.


The first plastic bag

The first plastic bag was produced in 1960 by a Swedish company called Celloplast. In 1965 Celloplast obtained their first US patent for their first bag which was called “the T-shirt plastic bag”. Slowly other companies picked up the idea and in 1985 during the regional conference of the Society of Plastic Engineers/s Newark Section in New Jersey it was announced that the cost of plastic bags is less than paper “one thousand plastic bags cost $ 24 and the same number of paper bags cost $ 30”. 

By the end of 1985, 75% of supermarkets were offering plastic bags to their customers. At that time however, consumers still preferred the paper bags, plastic bags were only bought by 25% of the market. However, a company called Mobil Chemical who was one of the leaders producing these bags was convinced of being able to change that, and as we can see, they were successful. Within the following decade, the plastic bag had captured 80% of the market. 

This is not too long ago. At that time, no one gave too much thought on the environmental impact of the plastic bags, the convenience for the consumer was in any case in the forefront in a multitude of commercials and advertising efforts.

For centuries humankind was able to shop and live without plastic bags, only in about 30 years since its introduction one of the major environmental issues we face is linked with plastic bags. This is actually unbelievable, how in such short timeframe only one product was able to create so much harm to our environment as well as the health of animals and humans as well. Probably it has been 30 years too long to not understand this. However now it is pretty clear that such one-way products are not suitable for a healthy progress of humanity. 


Let go of unhealthy habits

They might be advertised as desirable and convenient – however when thinking of it – how convenient is it to have to deal with a multitude of plastic bags after each stop at the grocery store? In Sri Lanka where we still do not have a functioning waste management system established, and waste is burned, buried and ends up in the water – how convenient are such products really?

Maybe we can accept that this was an invention humanity doesn’t really need anymore and move on. Let’s get inspired by the other countries which are best practice examples and have banned plastic bags or introduced a tax system as well as incentive system which facilitates the increase of reusable bags and innovative products which can substitute one-way plastic items. 

We have millions of banana trees and palmyrah trees in Sri Lanka, which can be used to create degradable plates and cutlery. We have enough businesses which offer beautiful shopping bags. We have to let go of unhealthy habits – whoever still feels he needs the comfort of having the groceries packed by the clerk at the shop, he can hand over the reusable bags instead of accepting plastic bags. Consumers, shops as well as the Government needs to take only a few, however crucial steps, to make Sri Lanka one country on the list of those who have finally banned non-reusable plastic items!

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