The man in the white suit

Philadelphia is the latest American city to withdraw the proposed charge for plastic shopping bags. Following on from similar action in Dallas, Austin, and Huntington Beach, California. Arizona went even further by legislating to stop local cities and counties from banning plastic bags in the first place. Do they know something we don’t? Do we really need to ban plastic bags or is there
a better way?

Plastic is made from a by-product of oil refining that used to be wasted, in fact the same amount of oil would be extracted for fuel, even if plastic did not exist. According to Wikipedia Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin is credited with inventing the plastic carrier bag in the early 1960’s. His invention produced a simple, strong bag with a high-load carrying capacity, which was patented worldwide by Celloplast in 1965.

It was a great success and quickly moved to mass production, eventually becoming the conveyance of choice for groceries everywhere, because it was and is a fantastic product. There is nothing like it for protecting food and other goods from damage and contamination. It is waterproof, strong and flexible, it can be re-used, re-cycled, adapted for a variety of products and is relatively cheap.

Everyone loves a bandwagon and before long other companies were jumping on, following in Sten’s footsteps and soon plastic bags in every colour, design and slogan were seen everywhere, and I mean everywhere, including streams, rivers, trees, land and sea causing a visual intrusion and a danger to wildlife.

Fast forward a few decades and plastic bags have moved from hero to zero because the very properties that make plastic fantastic, in particular its durability, have made it a pariah. And worse a political football because plastic bag bans make a big statement, a grand gesture to let consumers know that the people in charge take the environment seriously. How seriously is open to question, especially when there is no need to ban plastic bags. It’s a great shame that at some point in the late 70’s Sten Gustaf Thulin did not cross the path of Professor Gerald Scott, from Aston University in Birmingham, England, who, along with many other scientists in various countries developed oxobiodegradable technology further.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic is conventional polyolefin plastic to which has been added small amounts of metal salts which cause the plastic at the end of its useful life (in the presence of oxygen) to change into a nontoxic, biodegradable material, which is bio-assimilated into the environment in the same way as a leaf.

Better still it can be re-cycled into similar products if collected in a post-consumer waste stream, but if it escapes collection, it will degrade and biodegrade in the open environment in months, rather than years. Imagine if the two of them had got together and discussed their ideas at the beginning of the plastic bag plague. There may not be a floating garbage patch drifting around
in the ocean and plastic bag litter may not have become a problem at all.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic bags have been available for a number of years now and several enlightened countries in the world recognise the benefits of legislating to make sure that all lightweight plastic shopping bags are made using this technology, because it works. Furthermore, oxo-biodegradable plastic bags are much more environmentally friendly than starch-based plastic, paper and cotton re-usable bags. Research has shown that when energy, land use, water, fertilizers and emissions are considered, these products have a much greater impact on the environment and global warming than conventional oil-based plastic bags.

But what about all that waste, I hear you ask? Well, that’s the point, with oxobiodegradable plastic there would not be as much waste. It does not last for decades, and stealing a line from the first Terminator movie. The future is not set. Do we insist on banning and taxing plastic bags, or do we take a pragmatic approach and encourage the use of smarter plastic. Oxo-biodegradable technology is cheap and practical.

The fact is that 97% of waste either goes to landfill or is left to litter land and sea. Oxobiodegradable plastic is not a panacea but it offers an insurance policy for the plastic that escapes into the environment. Moreover, making plastic bags using oxobiodegradable technology would not cause problems for plastic bag manufacturers as the technology can be used with existing machinery and workforce and so far there is nothing to replace plastic for most applications.

It brings to mind the 1951 Ealing comedy – The Man in the White Suit. In the film Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a Scientist who invents a fabric that will never get dirty and never wear out. Unfortunately for Sidney, the cloth producers realise that his invention could put them all out of business and so they turn against him and try to cajole, threaten and blackmail him to give up on his research. In the final frames of the film, Sidney is seen running down the street, chased by an angry mob and as he does so, his supposedly indestructible suit starts to disintegrate
and eventually disappears completely to the point where Sidney is standing in the street wearing nothing but his underwear and a bewildered look on his face. The suit has a relatively short lifespan, just like oxo-biodegradable plastic.

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