Born in plastics factories from a mother of crude oil and a father of ethylene, and sold to retailers for around £10 per 1000, plastic bags begin life as a useful container for human groceries. Once in the home, they continue promisingly, often reused. According to the Society of the Plastics Industry, plastic bags are environmentally friendly because they can be reused perhaps to carry a goldfish to the vet, or protect your bum on a stadium seat at the football. What they don’t mention is that plastic bags are the second most common cause of suffocation of children in the US.Plastic is a fraud. It cheats the laws of nature. It is born, but does not ever really die. Plastic, unlike paper or the corpse of a killer whale, or even human bodies, remains intact, if tattered, far beyond its useful life. Plastic is designed to be impervious to the ways of nature, which is why its so useful for wrapping sweaty sandwiches, or steak in. That unerodable property makes it an ecological nightmare for once out of the grasp of a human hand, plastic bags take on a weird and worldwide life of their own. Twelve billion plastic bags are handed out to shoppers in Britain every year. Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s alone each hand out a billion.
This promising start does not come to fruition however, as next, the bag gets collected with the other rubbish and put out for the binmen. The chances are it will then end up in a landfill site. The plastic will of course never biodegrade, and thanks to the biological conditions which exist in landfills, neither will organic waste such as onion clippings or hamburgers, which can remain intact for decades, 27 million tonnes of it accumulating year by year. It is interesting to ponder on a future human digging open one of these sites to excavate the remnants of humans of the early third millenium. They almost certainly will be living on a planet empty of blue whales, elephants and tigers. What they will have however, are billions and billions of bags with the word Asda, or Miss Selfridge or The Gap, (indeed, take your pick of the high street stores), stamped on the side.
New government targets (50% of rubbish to be recycled by 2010), may mean plastic bags of the future will be recycled, but plastic is difficult to recycle. One problem is that the variety of plastics in existence cannot be recycled together. Contamination may render the recyclate (the product of recycling) unusable, and even when successful, plastics can only be recycled a few times. Certainly the bags we use today are highly unlikely to be recycled. Of the 15million plastic bottles used by the British every day, less than 3% get recycled, and the number of plastic bags recycled is currently not monitored.
Plastic bags in landfill sites are at least contained, but many escape the system and end up like balloons of destruction free to roam the planet. The seabed, is becoming increasingly ‘plasticised’. Half a kilometre down, plastic bags float on the bottom of Mediterranean in densities of up to 80 items per hectare. 550 plastic (CHECK) bottles per kilometer of Bristol Channel coast were recovered in a recent survey. On the paradisical beaches of the uninhabited South Pacific Islands, plastic bags waft up and down the shores as they do among the feet of bathers in Curacoa, or past the hooks of fishermen on the banks of any of Britain’s rivers. Due to the world’s meteriological systems the bag’s ultimate fate, may be to end up carried by the world’s ebb and swell, to the top of the world, Murmansk in the Barents Sea, Northern Russia where it collects with others of its kind, to held there by the oncoming tides, never dying.
In Indonesia, plastic bags have been reported clogging up the pumps at water refineries. Turtles in the Bay of Biscay commonly die of ingestion of plastic bags. Seabirds too, have plastic fragments in their stomachs, and plastic molecules in their muscles. In California it is not uncommon for seal lions to end up in rehabilitation centres with plastics wrapped around their necks. On land, plastic bags do as much damage. In South Africa, they end up ulcerating the bellies of the cattle of impoverished farmers. The cow may die, its corpse decompose, but the bag will live on once liberated from the body whose death it induced.
The irony of plastic waste as a serious environmental problem is that unlike fossil fuel consumption, or rainforest destruction or coral reef bleaching it is easily solvable. Plastic is an immensely useful material. We use it however, as though it has no downside at all. We must reduce our use of plastic. Retailers should be ashamed of the plastication of the world’s habitats with products labelled with their names. As shoppers we should use non-disposable bags to carry shopping, or simply refuse a bag when we buy something. We have a national obsession with wrapping everything in plastic, it is unnecessary and environmentally deadly.