“Why do we all hate plastic bags?” I ask in The New Green Consumer Guide. Now, the headlines are screaming about their horrors and the campaign to ban them seems to be endorsed by every living celebrity. You might think the answer is obvious. Plastic bags are produced in their billions, litter the countryside, pollute the sea and are even responsible for destroying wildlife. But let’s look a little closer and see whether they’re as bad as we think.
If plastic bags are such a horror, you might be tempted to switch to paper bags. But that’s not such a good idea. Paper bags take about the same amount of oil to make as a plastic bag, are 6 times as bulky and therefore require more transport fuel and they generally fall apart after one use. And if they do end up in land-fill sites – which most of them will – paper bags will rot and release greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. That’s something we’re trying to avoid.
Biodegradable plastic bags have the same problem – the fact that they break down isn’t actually a benefit unless they end up in the right sort of composting system. Another problem is that they can foul up recycling systems.
So here are three things NOT to believe:
1. that paper bags are better than plastic
2. that biodegradable bags are the answer
3. that all plastic is bad
The benefits of plastic are that they are light-weight, cheap and good at their job. Some people jokingly suggest that they might also be one of the best forms of carbon storage.
So what should we do about bags? My hierarchy is, as follows:
1. Cut down the use of all disposable bags whatever they’re made of.
2. Make consumers pay for bags to encourage us to remember to bring our own.
3. Make plastic bags from a high proportion of post-consumer recycled plastic.
4. Encourage people to recycle plastic bags – apparently only 10 in 1,000 actually get recycled.
5. Do everything we can to stop plastics ending up in the sea – or as litter.
Plastic bags seem to have become a symbol of our wasteful society. There’s no harm in that as long as they don’t distract our attention from doing things that really do make a big difference. So when we hear politicians, popstars and presenters sounding off about them, we should remember that they’re not the biggest issue on the planet……
See also Charles Clover’s view on plastic bags on the Telegraph website <Link no longer working>