The last time I wrote about waste I started like this:
The oft-repeated mantra of the ‘ecological modernist’ is that we are wasteful. They see the rise of disposable cups, packaging and plastic bags as a sign that of that wastefulness. Further, in terms of energy and climate change, they see traffic jams full of cars with only the driver inside, and lights on in buildings with no occupants in the city all night – a society squandering our resources. If only we could stop all this wastefulness and build a utopia.
I argued that waste is a relative and value driven term, and that the popularity of waste as a concept in environmental circles is in fact slowing progress on environment issues, as it distracts from the core problems.
Waste is not a useful concept, but litter, ‘stuff in the wrong place which may cause harm’, certainly is. Governments have waged war against plastic bags in the name of reducing litter (even though they prefer the term waste).
Outlawing giveaway plastic bags appears to have gained traction with policy makers as one path to environmental bliss. South Australia has a law. Victoria has one. Ireland has one (although the list of exemptions is pretty long). California is considering one. And the list goes on.
To truly assess the environmental benefits of these new laws, one must consider the final destination of the ‘green’ bags accumulating in our homes. No doubt, like mine, these end up in landfill just like any other plastic bag. It is rare to hear views like the following:
"I've just retired after 30 years in the packaging industry and, frankly, I'm amazed at the constant rave about the 'environmental' green bags ... Doesn't anyone realise these bags are made of the same 'almost indestructible' materials used in car bumpers and wheelie bins? ... These bags replace the plastic bags, which were in the throes of changing to a safe cornstarch biodegradable form ... what happens when these 'cool' bags reach their use-by date? Will there be millions of them in circulation?" (from here)
After cleaning out the house lately I have found no less than 40 of these bags – about 30% supermarket bags, but mostly from other retailers and from promotional events. There are almost 9million households in Australia, so I am guessing there are around 300million of these things floating around the country. Have we simply substituted one litter problem for another?
A CSIRO research scientist, Dr Mike O'Shea, says the green bag's only environmental credential is that it is not the single-use high-density polyethylene plastic bag still given out in most shops and supermarkets.
The green bags, which are made from non-woven polypropylene, are designed to have a relatively long life but they are not designed to break down in the compost heap, he says. (from here)
The approach taken with plastic bags was very obtuse. The plastic bag problem, as I understand it, is not about producing less plastic bags, but about having less plastic bag litter in our waterways and oceans. If all plastic bags were in landfill, instead of floating around out oceans choking our wildlife, we would have no problem with these versatile little things (but maybe a problem with landfill in general). Taxes and regulations affecting the plastic bag price at selected stores achieves nothing for other litter problems, while giving the illusion of strong action.
Unfortunately bans typically apply only to supermarkets, allowing other retailers to continue to offer plastic bags for free. From my observations, supermarket plastic bags are the least likely to end up as litter. They usually go straight from the store to home, and are likely to be reused for rubbish, or thrown out with the regular rubbish.
The plastic bag ban has surely missed its mark, while providing the illusion of strong environmental action. Maybe it is all too simplistic of me to suggest that we tackle problems in a simple and direct manner. Perhaps instead we could invest in the prevention and clean up of litter entering our waterways by ensuring litter traps are on all stormwater pipes, investing in regular cleaning of rivers and riverbanks to remove litter and debris, and invest cooperatively in the cleanup of ocean rubbish (maybe with a little help from this guy).