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What’s in a Bag? The Continuing Debate About Banning Plastic Bags

| Friday March 23rd, 2012 | 2 Comments

In the spring, the European Commission plans to publish proposals that will tackle the problem of plastic bags and to reduce the number that are used. About fifteen thousand people took part in a public consultation and most of them favoured an outright ban. However, many countries within the EU bloc have been hesitating with this idea.

According to Environmental Commissioner, Janez Potocnik: “The impact of this plastic waste can be seen littering our landscape, threatening our wildlife and accumulating as ‘plastic soup’ in the Pacific Ocean, which may cover more than 15,000,000 sq km.”

Last year, Italy completely banned non-biodegradable single-use plastic bags. China, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Bangladesh have banned very thin plastic bags. Rwanda, Somalia, and Tanzania have banned plastic bags altogether. The UAE will bring about a ban to all non-biodegradable bags next year.

In the EU 800,000 tonnes of single-use plastic bags are used every year and only 6 percent are recycled. Many countries are using a variety of different tactics to tackle the problem. In Ireland, for example a charge of 15 euro cents was introduced in 2002 and this alone reduced plastic bag litter by 95 percent. This levy was again raised to 22 cents in 2007 after it was found that the number of plastic bags had actually risen, although shoppers had switched to long-life bags. The 75m euros raised from this was put into a European Fund which was used to reduce waste and research new ways of recycling.

Belgium, Germany, Spain, Norway, and the Netherlands were among the first to follow Ireland’s lead. Wales introduced a charge of 6 euro cents last year and Northern Ireland will do the same. Currently, however, the fact remains that there is no suitable alternative to the plastic carrier bag. Anything that is stronger, regardless of whether it is fabric or heavier plastic will have a bigger carbon footprint than the single-use version.

Last year Britain’s Environment Agency published a Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags. The report concluded that long-life plastic bags have to be reused a number of times in order for them to offset a standard plastic carrier bag. A plastic ‘bag for life’ must be used at least four times, a paper bag must be used three times and a cotton bag must be used 131 times to compensate for the larger amounts of carbon used in their manufacturing and transporting when compared to a single-use plastic bag. If a single use plastic bag is reused, its footprint decreases further, even if it is reused as a bin liner.

When it comes to biodegradable or compostable bags, the EU Commission is considering better ways to label them. Compostable bags for instance, will only degrade in industrial composting plants, whereas biodegradable bags will degrade in the natural environment. Bags that are made with corn will biodegrade in a landfill, but produce methane. An oxo-biodegradable bag will degrade if its exposed to air or water but not in a landfill.

Paper bags have been popular in the US, but have not been so popular in the EU. Paper bags are seldom reused and have a higher carbon footprint although they are able to biodegrade in the landfill. From an environmental stand-point, paper bags are as bad as plastic.

With all the facts, now carefully categorized, it is a waiting game to see what the EU will decide to do with its plastic bags. Ireland’s model has been one of the most successful models of reducing plastic bags so far, but the EU might go a different direction and ban the bag altogether. In either case, it would be a wise idea to phase in any new regulation.

Image Credit: Plastic Bags in Germany, Muriel Gottrop, Wikimedia Commons


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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ken-Holmes/729941360 Ken Holmes

    The problem is that bans don’t actually do any good.  This is because most people (over 90% according to some studies) reuse their grocery and retail plastic checkout bags. Bags get reused as garbage bags, to carry laundry, as lunch sacks, to pick up after pets, and many other things. If checkout bags aren’t available for this purpose, people will have to buy packaged bags – especially for things destined for the landfill. Plastic bags are also 100% recyclable, and easily recyclable (although the environmentalist extremists make the false claim that they aren’t).

    Plastic checkout bags make up far less than 1% of litter and landfill volume, and are mainly made locally, essentially increases costs for consumers and ships jobs to China. Almost all reusable bags are also made of plastic (polypropylene – which isn’t easily recyclable) and manufactured in China.

    The smart thing to do would be to focus on environmental issues that actually have an impact. Plastic bags aren’t a problem.

  • Glen Hendrix

    Reuse is the better way to go. There are now things on the market to help reuse plastic bags for all sorts of things. One such is the “BagNabbit” http://amzn.to/JMi9LV . It turns a bag into a wastebasket, storage bin, clothes hamper, etc.