Shifting Baselines

18bag190.3.jpgPlastic bags have some desirable traits. They require less energy and water to make than paper bags. Their impermeability means that they won’t become a gooey, soggy mess over a little rotten egg. But the very thing that makes plastic bags so attractive must also make them an environmental catastrophe.

The problem with plastic bags is that they are made of plastic, which can take more than 1,000 years to biodegrade, has a number of ill effects on human health, and, as litter, can kill seabirds and other marine life. Plus, there are just too many of them (check out this bibliography on plastic debris).

According to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., plastic factories in 2002 produced between 4 and 5 trillion plastic bags, ranging from large trash bags to thin grocery sacks. Communities around the globe have taken to cutting down on plastic bags via market incentives or regulations.

Here are the possible treatments for the plastic bag epidemic:

1) User rebate. Stores can offer a user rebate. For instance, at Lululemon, Vancouver’s posh yoga store, shoppers can save a few cents by not taking a bag. The problem with this option is that users have to opt out of using the bag to save money. The default setting is still usage.

2) User tax. As Josh mentioned, last week, the mayor of Seattle announced his proposal to charge 20 cents for every bag, paper or plastic, used at grocery or drugstores. While this was the first of such initiatives in the U.S., Scandinavian countries have charged for bags for more than a decade and, in Ireland, bags have been taxed since 2002, which has resulted in a reduction in bag use by a supposed 90 percent.

3) Outright ban. But 90 percent is not good enough for some communities. The city of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, was the first city in Canada to totally ban the plastic bag and they did so in April last year. Just two weeks ago, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to prohibit plastic bags in large markets and drug stores and require biodegradable plastic or recyclable paper sacks. But why limit a ban to cities? Plastic bags were banned in all of Uganda in June of last year and France plans to phase out use by 2010. Many cities and nations, however, opt for the last option.

4) Do nothing.

The first two options use the market, the third uses the government/democracy, and the fourth and predominant choice so far, employs good old-fashioned apathy. Which is best?

Moreover, why is my current home of Vancouver lagging so far behind in all of this? Why should the city that spawned Greenpeace and David Suzuki be outdone by Leaf Rapids and Uganda? With Earth Day fast approaching, Vancouver has a great opportunity to quit being so plastic.

Comments

  1. #1 Limonit
    April 15, 2008

    I think this sums it up real good.

    I was born in Italy. There plastic bags are the norm (And if you drive away from tourist centers you notice where the end: left and right of each major street). Plastic bags are mostly free and you get really strange looks if you say that you don’t want any in the stores (“But it’s free!?”)

    Currently I am in Austria. Plastic bags are not free and cost between .20 and .60 EUR. They are bought, but rarely. Most of the people use reuseable boxes or bags.

    I fear if a state does not opt for your number three, than only number two with a real hefty price tag will change anything.

  2. #2 Milan
    April 15, 2008

    Landfill space is really the least of our worries when it comes to environmental problems. As such, it seems that the biggest issue with plastic bags is making sure they end up being properly disposed of.

    Incidentally, most kind of plastics never biodegrade, they just get physically broken into microscopic pieces. Those are still a threat to tiny organisms, if they are out in the environment.

  3. #3 Green4u
    April 15, 2008

    This is a fantastic summary of possible solutions to the plastic bag problem. I think people would hate a user tax but it would get lots of people to stop using them especially in this economy. I hope that more cities and states look at this as a problem.

    Everyone should have re-usuable bags by now.

    http://green4u.wordpress.com

  4. #4 steppen wolf
    April 15, 2008

    User rebate does not work until it really hurts. In many countries people already pay some extra cents for the fact that they are using plastic bags – but everybody uses them anyway. So I would be in favour of an outright ban.

    A ban is easiest, IMHO, to implement – you know how taxation is used as a political weapon… – plus the stores themselves could sell reusable bags, and many of them already do. So an outright ban would not be a biggie.

  5. #5 anu
    April 16, 2008

    When it comes to environmental hazards, plastic is one of the main culprits. Although I think it wouuld be several years before the ban is fully imposed world wide. As soon as everyone starts taking an initiative to opt for eco-friendly bags, that would ne an end of the mayhem caused by plastic. I am from India and in the army colonies plastic is completely banned.

  6. #6 Bee
    April 16, 2008

    Can I boast about Halifax, NS? HRM has for several years had a garbage reduction program that includes a compost bin for every household, collected by the municipality and processed at a municipal facility. Compostables include vegetable and meat scraps, oils, boxboard and garden waste. They also collect recyclables, including paper, cardboard, plastic and glass. There is a ‘real garbage’ bag limit of six per household every two weeks. The program has been well accepted by most citizens and is now routine.

    I expect a plastic bag ban will come soon. Grocery chains and other stores already offer reusable cloth bags at low cost, available at checkouts. I see more and more people using them – they really are more convenient and easier on the hands to carry.

  7. #7 Maeve
    April 16, 2008

    You forgot the French option – train your grocery store clerks to give long and disdainful looks to anyone who would ask for a plastic bag. Then grudgingly hand them only one for their groceries so that they have to ask again for the remaining items. Repeat until the shopper feels so humiliated that she never again forgets to bring her own bags….

  8. #8 Jennifer L. Jacquet
    April 16, 2008

    Oh yes, at least the British and Americans have embarked on this path of smugness as well via the Anya Hindmarch campaign (see photo in the post). But by trying to make canvas cool, they really just made it expensive. Last July:

    15 Whole Foods stores in the New York area were to start selling $15 cotton bags by Anya Hindmarch, a London designer better known for bags that range to $1,500 and beyond. The bags, which read “I’m not a plastic bag,” are intended to be used and reused for groceries, in place of plastic. Whole Foods is selling 20,000, first come first served, limit three to a customer while supplies last. If offerings of the bag in other cities are any guide, the lines will be long.

    The bags then sold on Ebay for upwards of $300. Thankfully, my good friend who lives in London was watching out for me and sent her sweet husband to stand in line to buy a canvas Hindmarch on my behalf. He managed to get one but subsequently the bags ran out and he watched as the less fortunate women behind him burst into tears. My friend presented it to me as a birthday gift and aptly described it as “a relic of the environmental movement”.

  9. #9 Madhu
    April 17, 2008

    Nice summary of the options and strategies to deal with plastic bags. You made me gather my own thoughts on the topic too – so thanks!

    Note that the San Francisco ban actually went into effect last year, not two weeks ago as you write. I found (and posted) links to news stories about it a year ago, as well as more recent efforts in California to try your option #2 – a 25 cent tax per bag! Let’s see how far that goes.

    Also, I note that this seems to be one environmental pollution problem where the developing world has been ahead of the developed one. You note Uganda. Much of India has also banned plastic bags, starting with Bombay around 2001! And those countries haven’t had to glamorize cloth bags in any way.

  10. #10 Michael
    April 17, 2008

    As you have said, the problem with plastic is that it lies around too long in the environment.

    However, ordinary plastic and recycled plastic should not be banned – it should be made oxo-biodegradable.

    This is done by including d2w additive (see http://www.degradable.net) which makes it degrade, then biodegrade, on land or at sea, in the light or the dark, in heat or cold, in whatever timescale is required, leaving NO fragments NO methane and NO harmful residues. Oxo-bio passes the tests in American Standard 6954, and is made from a by-product of oil refining which used to be wasted, so nobody is importing extra oil to make it.

    There is little or no additional cost.

    Plastics made from crops, are up to 400% more expensive, they are not strong enough for use in high-speed machinery, and they emit methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) in landfill. Also, it is wrong to use land, water and fertilisers to grow crops for bioplastics and biofuels, which drives up the cost of food for the poorest people.

    The same applies to growing cotton or jute to make durable bags. These rapidly become unhygienic and become a durable form of litter, but they can be made from oxo-bio plastic to last up to 5 years.

    Paper bags use 300% more energy to produce, they are bulky and heavy and are not strong enough. They will also emit methane in landfill

    Compostability of plastics is an irrelevance because compostable plastics are far too expensive for everyday use, and there are very few industrial composting facilities. Also, as it is difficult and expensive to separate compostable plastics from other plastics, industrial composters do not want plastic of any kind in their feedstock. Home composting of plastic packaging is dangerous and should not be encouraged, as it is often contaminated with foodstuffs and temperatures do not rise high enough to kill the pathogens.

    Oxo-biodegradable plastics fragment and partially biodegrade in the upper layers of the landfill, but the residues are completely inert deeper in the landfill in the absence of oxygen. They do not emit methane at any stage.

    See also http://www.biodeg.org

  11. #11 daedalus2u
    April 17, 2008

    Plastic bags are really not the environmental catastrophe that people are pretending they are. The major pollution they cause is visual. Most plastic bags are polyethylene and are essentially inert until they start to degrade. Polyethylene is simply a very long chain hydrocarbon. It is too large to interact with most aqueous systems which is why it is so inert. The major degradation mechanism is exposure to UV light which breaks the hydrocarbon chain, produces free radicals and introduces reactive sites on the free ends which allow enzymes to begin to attack it.

    Polyethylene may have a long lifetime in a landfill, but so does everything else in a landfill. Exposed to sunlight polyethylene doesn’t last for very long periods of time. That is one of the drawbacks of polyethylene or polypropylene rope. It becomes brittle quite quickly.

    I think the real danger of all this effort being put into banning of plastic bags is that people are then deluded into thinking they are doing something positive for the environment and don’t do things which are (very slightly) more difficult but have much larger impacts. Turning your heat down by 1 degree in winter will have a larger impact than not using plastic bags.

    Where I live in Massachusetts, the heating season is considered to be from September to May, and in 2006-2007 was 5290 degree days. A degree day is the difference between the average daily temperature and 65 degrees F. The heating load is proportional to the degree days. If you lower the thermostat by 1 degree for 1 day, you reduce your heating load by 1 degree day. There are 9 months in the heating season, lowering the thermostat by 1 degree over that time saves 270 degree days, or 5.1% of the annual heating bill. Assuming 900 gallons of heating oil consumption (the base case assumed by the Oil Heating Council), that is a reduction of 45 gallons.

    45 gallons of heating oil is about 367 pounds of hydrocarbon. That is about the equivalent of a pound of plastic per day, every day, for a year. When it is burned it releases 1155 pounds of CO2.

    Worrying about a few pounds of plastic over a year while not worrying about hundreds of pounds of oil is being penny wise and pound foolish.

  12. #12 Bioplast
    April 19, 2008

    Normal non-biodegradable plastic bag takes up to 500 years or more to degrade and you can still find some pieces of it somewhere in the environment.

    Now there is a much better alternative to levying, recycling and reusable canvas grocery bags for those who forgets their canvas bag at home or in the car which is called “BIOPLAST Biodegradable Plastics.”

    BIOPLAST is a manufacturing company of BIOPLAST Branded Biodegradable Garbage Bags for the household markets and for the industry as well as Biodegradable Carrier Bags for the retail sector using their own patented unique formula of bacteria enzyme base substrate as against starch base as used by other manufacturers world over which is not as strong or durable as polymer (plastic) bags and has a cost addition of 300%-400%. Also starch based products can comprise of genetically modified crops (GM Crops).

    This is the only Biodegradable technology in the world using bacteria enzyme base substrate which is 100% biodegradable within 6 months after disposal as per ASTM-D 5988-1996 and EN 13432:2000/ISO 14855 standards with the lowest cost addition of 15%-20%.

    BIOPLAST biodegradable products are also compostable and hence enhancing the nutritive value of the remaining soil. All the ingredients of BIOPLAST biodegradable plastic products are food grade and non-toxic in nature therefore are suitable to have contact with food products.

    BIOPLAST believes that this great innovation will go a long way in preserving the ecological balance around the world which has brought intelligent and affordable solution to the disposal of polyethylene plastic waste problem worldwide.

    Now the local and central Governments must ban all non-biodegradable plastic bags and force all the retailers to use ONLY 100% Biodegradable bags in their stores as an alternative to recycling and reusable canvas bags which will be the evidence of their sincere concern for the environment and their commitment to tackling the considerable problem of plastic bag waste and the pollution.

    “NOW THE FUTURE IS IN OUR HANDS FOR ALL NEW GENERATIONS.”

    http://www.bioplast.com.tr

  13. #13 Glen Daless
    July 24, 2008

    As cities and states start to ban plastic bags, I know that my Collection of “Reusable Shopping Bags” will be the bearer of good news in the coming “Green” revolution.

    The Collection (the World’s Largest) and BLOG are the repository of information about “Reusable Shopping Bags” and the phenomena of what is happening right now.

    The Collection will be on display in September at the Hickory Corner Library in East Windsor, NJ. Please stop by or have an associate contact me for more information.

    You may view the Collection and read comments from industry, consumers and bloggers at:

    http://www.Crafts2Press.BlogSpot.com/#NEXT

    Glen Daless

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  19. #19 Webmaster
    May 25, 2009

    When it comes to environmental hazards, plastic is one of the main culprits. Although I think it wouuld be several years before the ban is fully imposed world wide. As soon as everyone starts taking an initiative to opt for eco-friendly bags, that would ne an end of the mayhem caused by plastic. I am from India and in the army colonies plastic is completely banned.

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  25. #25 film izle
    August 13, 2010

    I was born in Italy. There plastic bags are the norm (And if you drive away from tourist centers you notice where the end: left and right of each major street). Plastic bags are mostly free and you get really strange looks if you say that you don’t want any in the stores (“But it’s free!?”)

  26. #26 komik videolar
    August 13, 2010

    Then grudgingly hand them only one for their groceries so that they have to ask again for the remaining items. Repeat until the shopper feels so humiliated that she never again forgets to bring her own bags….

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