Many legislators are under pressure to ban plastic bags – but this is a really bad idea.
For an excellent video see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdQUzxp9Mfw&feature=youtu.be
More and more people are realising that governments and supermarkets are exploiting our environmental consciousness to make us pay more for no good reason. Some supermarkets are charging for plastic carrier bags and saying that they are giving the profit to charity. This sounds laudable, but they are transferring the cost of the bags from themselves to their environmentally-conscious customers.
Even if a tax is imposed there will still be very large numbers of plastic bags in circulation, and most governments have no policy for those which cannot realistically be collected, unless the tax is higher on conventional plastic than on oxo-biodegradable plastic so as to encourage a switch to the more environmentally beneficial option.
Plastic carrier bags are in fact a wonder of modern technology. They can be made very thin, with minimal raw material, but are still strong enough to carry a full load of heavy shopping. No other shopping container can carry 2,500 times its own weight and stay strong when wet. A typical plastic carrier bag uses 70% less plastic today than 20 years ago.
Plastic bags will protect our food and other goods from damage and contamination. They are hygienic and can be made in an almost unlimited number of colors and designs. Despite all these attributes they are inexpensive, and are by far the most cost-effective and functional solution available.
The bags can also be re-used many times over for shopping, and are compact enough to be put in a pocket or handbag. They are also put to many other uses in the home, and for other uses such as clearing dog-waste from the streets, and most of them will eventually serve as a bin-liner to safely collect and dispose of household waste. They are made from a by-product of oil-refining which used to be wasted. The oil is extracted to make fuels, and the same amount would be extracted even if plastic did not exist.
The only problem with plastic bags is that they could lie or float around for decades if they get into the open environment, but this problem has been solved by oxo-biodegradable technology. This is a low-cost technology which causes the plastic to degrade at the end of its pre-set useful life in the presence of oxygen, into a biodegradable material which is invisible and not toxic. It does NOT just cause the plastic to fragment.
The governments of the following countries carefully considered the effectiveness and safety of oxo-biodegradable technology before passing legislation which makes it mandatory to use the technology :- Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Mauritius, Yemen, Iran, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, and Brazil (part). These have a combined population of 195 million, and other countries will be following their example.
Plastics factories and brand-owners will not be able to export to those countries unless their products contain oxo-bio technology.
Support for plastic bags without bans or charges has been given a welcome boost. A proposed charge in New York of 10 cents per bag has been decisively rejected in May 2015 by 63% of the city’s residents, who voted to continue the city’s tradition of free plastic bags.
This follows news that Huntingdon Beach in California has cancelled its ban on plastic bags in response to a recent surge in support for them from local residents, and the decision of Arizona’s State Legislature to stop cities and counties imposing plastic bag bans at all.
Toronto City council voted 28th November 2012 not to ban plastic bags, reversing a controversial decision it had made in June. Councillors voted 38-7 to kill the ban, which had been set to take effect Jan. 1 2013.
- Is it a good idea to ban plastic carrier-bags?
Scientists and environmentalists have attacked a global campaign to ban plastic bags which they say is based on flawed science and exaggerated claims.
The Times of London wrote as follows in an editorial on 8th March 2008:
Analysis without facts is guesswork. Sloppy analysis of bad science is worse. Poor interpretation of good science wastes time and impedes the fight against obnoxious behaviour. There is no place for bad science, or weak analysis, in the search for credible answers to difficult questions…. Many of those who have demonized plastic bags have enlisted scientific study to their cause. By exaggerating a grain of truth into a larger falsehood they spread misinformation, and abuse the trust of their unwitting audiences.
Dick Taverne, chairman of “Sense about Science” said “This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counter-productive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn’t achieve anything.”
On 18th February 2011 the UK Environment Agency published a Life-Cycle Assessment which highlighted that HDPE bags are, for each use, almost 200 times less damaging to the climate than cotton hold-alls favoured by environmentalists, and have less than one third of the C0₂ emissions than paper bags. In May 2012 Intertek wrote another LCA which included the litter metric and concluded that oxo-biodegradable plastic bags had better environmental credentials than “compostable” plastic, conventional plastic, and paper and durable bags.
According to the UK Dept. for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (The Guardian, 3 October 2007) “We don’t think a ban or levy is the right way to go. In Ireland, people just bought more bin-liners to replace free carrier bags, so the volume of waste stayed the same”. Because so many plastic bags are re-used for domestic waste disposal, the following increase in bin liners and refuse sacks occurred after the tax in Ireland:
o Tesco – 77% increase in pedal bin liner sales
o SuperQuinn – 84% increase in nappy disposable bag sales
o SuperValue/Centra – 75% increase in swing bin liner sales
On 8th November 2011 the Competitive Enterprise Institute of Washington DC published a paper on plastic bag bans which concluded “Contrary to the rhetoric, plastic bans do not serve the environment, as they carry serious tradeoffs in terms of energy and water usage, and they do not solve problems associated with ocean litter. Policy makers who desire to address the real problem, which is litter, should look to existing programs that have a proven record of success. ….. Such policies may not offer the same opportunities for high-profile media coverage and credit claiming as do bans. They do, on the other hand, accomplish environmental goals without harming individual freedom, private enterprise, or the environment.”
The case against plastic shopping bags is based on a number of fallacies, as follows:
Q. Plastic is made from oil or natural gas – is this not a finite resource which should be conserved?
- Plastics are currently made from naphtha or ethane, which is a by-product of oil or natural gas. This by-product arises because the world needs fuels, and would arise whether or not the by-product were used to make plastic goods. So, nobody is extracting or importing extra oil and gas to make plastic. Until other fuels have been developed it makes good environmental sense to use the by-product, instead of using scarce agricultural resources, fossil-fuels, and water to make paper or cloth bags or vegetable-based plastic. In fact oil-based plastics could reduce the amount of oil and gas imported because after their useful life they can be incinerated to release the stored energy, which can be used to generate electricity or to heat buildings.
Q. But the landfills are filling up, and we need to reduce the amount of plastic bags going to landfill.
A. Plastic shopping bags occupy a tiny proportion of the space in landfill.
“0.2% of the contents of the average household garbage bin is plastic carrier bags … hence a tax on plastic carrier bags alone would be unlikely to have any significant impact on volumes of waste”
The fraction of landfill represented by plastic shopping bags is 0.05%. This is based on domestic waste being 17% of landfill and plastic bags being 0.2% of the average garbage bin.
In any event it is likely that sending plastics to landfill will be banned altogether in Europe, and should be banned everywhere. In its Green Paper published on 7th March 2013 the European Commission says “From a resource efficiency perspective, it is particularly important to prevent landfilling of plastic waste. Any landfilling of plastic is an obvious waste of resources which should be avoided in favour of recycling, or of energy recovery as the next best option.”
A far greater impact on landfill space would be made by diverting away from landfill bricks, concrete, wood, glass and other building materials and other items such as household appliances, which occupy much more space.
Q. But Plastic bags are getting into the open environment, where they will lie or float around for decades, killing wildlife and disfiguring the environment.
- Plastic bags are so useful that for the foreseeable future millions of them will be used every day all around the world. People should be educated not to litter, but in no country will it be possible to collect and dispose responsibly of all the plastic. So all
short-life plastic goods should be made with oxo-biodegradable technology which makes them self-destruct within a short time if they get into the open environment.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic bags convert at the end of their useful life into a biodegradable material. At that stage they are no longer plastic, they are not eco-toxic, they are not a visual intrusion, and they will be bio-assimilated in the same way as a leaf.
Oxo-biodegradable plastics are designed to biodegrade in the open environment when exposed to natural phenomena such as wind, rain, sunlight, etc and to do so in a synergistic relationship with micro-organisms naturally occurring in the open environment.
Q. But lots of plastic bags are getting into the oceans!
- “If all the plastic had been made with oxo-biodegradable technology there would be no ocean plastic garbage patches. ”
In the 2012 study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin “Occurrence of micro-plastics in gastrointestinal tracts of pelagic and demersal fish from the English Channel” it was shown that the majority of plastic particles consumed by the fish were rayon (57.8%) and polyester fibres. These are derived from clothes, hygiene products and nappies (diapers). Another major source of plastics in the ocean is from the fishing industry. Micro-plastics are not therefore necessarily derived from plastic bags nor even from packaging of all types- which normally use polyethylene and polypropylene. Nor have they been shown to absorb toxins to any greater extent than other particles in the sea. For a more detailed discussion see “Plastics in the Marine Environment”
Oxo-biodegradable plastics do not contribute to pollution – on the contrary, they are bio-assimilated into the bio-background. This is because the material descends to low molecular-weight materials much more quickly than normal plastic. At that stage they are no longer plastics and have become biodegradable in the same way as a leaf or seaweed. They do not therefore float around in the sea for decades absorbing other materials.
Q. Isn’t it better to use long-life bags?
They are much thicker and more expensive, and a large number of them would be required for the weekly shopping of an average family. 30,000 jute or cotton bags can be packed into a 20-foot container, but the same container will accommodate 2.5 million plastic carrier-bags. Therefore, to transport the same number of jute or cotton bags 80x more ships and trucks would be required than for thin plastic bags, using 80x more fuel, using 80x more road space and emitting 80x more CO2.
Long-life bags are not hygienic if a tomato is squashed or milk is spilled. Research by Guelph Chemical Laboratories in Canada in 2008 Microbiological Study of Reusable Grocery Bags has shown that “re-usable grocery bags can become an active microbial habitat and a breeding-ground for bacteria, yeast, mold, and coliforms. …. The unacceptable presence of coliforms – ie intestinal bacteria, in some of the bags tested, suggests that forms of E.Coli associated with severe disease could be present in a small but significant proportion of the bags.” A similar conclusion was reached in Brasil and in Arizona
In the Social Science Research Network article “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illnesses“ by Joshua D. Wright and Jonathan Klick, evidence was presented that plastic bag bans, creating demand for more long-life bags bags that become contaminated, are bad for your health. Klick of the University of Pennsylvania, and Wright of George Mason University, examined emergency-room admissions records related to bacterial intestinal infections, especially those related to E. coli in the wake of San Francisco’s 2007 ban on plastic bags in large grocery stores and drug stores. That ban was extended to all retail establishments in early 2012.
What Klick and Wright found was that “the San Francisco City ban is associated with a 46% increase in deaths from food borne illnesses.” and “Bag bans in San Francisco resulted conservatively in 5.4 annual additional deaths.”
Whilst sometimes called “Bags for Life” they have a limited life, depending on the treatment they receive, and become a very durable form of litter when discarded.
Shoppers do not always go to the shop from home, where the re-usable bags would normally be kept, and consumers are unlikely to have a re-usable bag with them when buying on impulse items such as clothing, groceries, CDs, magazines, stationery etc. Research conducted for the Scottish Executive carrier bag case studies showed that 92% of people think re-using carrier bags is good for the environment but 59% forget their re-usable bags and have to take new ones at the checkout!
As durable bags are a cost to the consumer and carrier-bags are a cost to the supermarket, one can easily understand why supermarkets are in favour of reducing the number of carrier bags and increasing the number of durable bags.
However, for those who believe in long-term re-usable bags, they can be made from washable extended-life oxo-biodegradable plastic which will last for 3-5 years before they will self-destruct, leaving no harmful residues. They can even be made hostile to bacteria if you include at manufacture and anti-microbial masterbatch such as d2p.
Q. Isn’t it better to use paper bags?
“There have been unforeseen consequences in the Irish Experience … increase in the use of paper bags which are actually worse for the environment …” … Ben Bradshaw, UK Environment Minister, 4 August 2006.
The process of making paper bags causes 70% more atmospheric pollution than plastic bags. Paper bags use 300% more energy to produce, and the process uses huge amounts of water and creates very unpleasant organic waste. When they degrade paper bags emit carbon dioxide, and will emit methane in anaerobic conditions.
A stack of 1,000 new plastic carrier bags would be around 2 inches high, but a stack of 1,000 new paper grocery bags could be around 2 feet high. It would take at least seven times the number of trucks to deliver the same number of bags, creating seven times more transport pollution and road congestion.
Also, because paper bags are not as strong as plastic, people may use two or three bags inside each other. Paper bags cannot normally be re-used, and will disintegrate if wet.
In summary therefore it is not a good idea to ban or tax plastic bags – it is a very bad idea, unless the purpose of the tax is to encourage the use of oxo-biodegradable plastic.
 The Times 8 Mar 2008
 The findings suggested that, in order to balance out the tiny impact of each lightweight plastic bag, consumers would have to use the same cotton bag every working day for a year, or use paper bags at least three times rather than putting them in the bin or recycling.
 (Evidence to Scottish Parliament, Environment and Rural Development Committee Hearings 2005).
 Plastic Bag Tax Assessment, UK Treasury, Dec 2002.
 Packaging and Films Association 2007
 COM(2013) 123 final
 Professor Gerald Scott, DSc, FRSC, C.Chem, FIMMM , Professor Emeritus in Chemistry and Polymer Science of Aston University, UK; Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association; Chairman of the British Standards Institute Panel on Biodegradability of Plastics.
 Lusher, A.L., et al. Occurrence of microplastics in the gastrointestinal tract of pelagic and demersal fish from the English
Channel. Mar. Pollut. Bull. (2012), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2012.11.028