Friday, July 27, 2012

Plastic, Like Diamonds, is Forever: Time to Use Fewer Bags

Bag people. Flickr/Heal the Bay
by Dr Joseph Ting, Clinical Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland, The Conversation:

Between 30 million and 50 million plastic bags enter the environment as litter in Australia each year.

These environmentally damaging bags - produced to be used once and then thrown away - are a symbol of our disposable society.

When future generations reflect on our convenience-maximising consumer behaviour, the permanence of disfigured, shredded, flying white flowers (A.K.A. plastic bags) will testify to a discard culture and dispose culture in the name of brief convenience.

Like a globally pervasive cancer, plastic bags everywhere entangle, drown, asphyxiate, and starve animals that mistake their wavy, sun-struck allure for food. Bags adorn trees and fences, becoming the new indestructible urban weed. A colony of bags visible from space (it is 15 million square kilometres!) has accrued in the Pacific, an enormous soup of tiny plastic nodules.

We know the bags do untold damage, but we only act on what costs us directly

Most of us are aware that plastic bags create litter, kill wildlife, clog drains, inflicting wounds on wild and inhabited environs alike.

But unfortunately, awareness of the peril of plastic has not changed behaviour at the check-out; if offered bags at no additional cost or inconvenience, most consumers will, without a second thought, allow their groceries or takeaway to be packed into lightweight 35-micron-thin polyethylene plastic bags that are usually used only once more to line their bins or pick up after their dogs.

When it matters most, the community’s apparent support for reducing plastic bag use is not backed up by altered packing behaviour at the check-out.

Most consumers do not:
  • Re-use bags for storage or carriage until they are irreparable;
  • Recycle single use bags;
  • Bring their own durable reinforced bags;
  • Refuse single use bags;
  • Ask for biodegradable or compostable bags.
Flickr/Mr T in D.C.
Bear in mind that no human has, or will ever witness the entirety of a discarded non-biodegradable bag’s natural decomposition since it was invented by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin in the early 1960s and patented in 1965.

We can only surmise that bags will take 50 generations to decompose, with most travelling through, or ending up in, Earth’s three elements: the soil (as landfill), water, and briefly afloat in air.

According to the European Union (EU) Executive, Europe alone produced 3.4 million tonnes of plastic bag carriers - the equivalent in weight of 2 million cars - in 2008. Only 6% of plastic bags were recycled in the EU in 2010.

Plastic bags are extraordinary travellers; I have had occasion to clear plastic litter delivered by trans-Siberian currents to a remote uninhabited Norwegian Arctic beach.

One million plastic bags are used every minute worldwide - plastic is endemic at supermarkets, groceries, liquor stores, pharmacists, newsagents, and retailers.

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