Will the world drown in plastic?

With the looming US debt crisis, famine in East Africa, and mass murder in Norway, why should we be concerned about plastic bags?

If this question sounds frivolous, it is not by any means. The BBC Breakfast news programme this morning spoke to a campaigner in the studio, and devoted several minutes including street interviews to the problem of plastic bags: how to encourage shops to issue fewer, shoppers to use fewer, how to dispose of them, and how to generally reduce packaging.

Waste disposal is not a frivolous matter; waste can be physically dangerous, it can be a public health hazard, a blot on the landscape, and last but by no means least, expensive to dispose of. Many cities are running out of landfill sites, and need to come up with new ways to dispose of waste, so it makes sense to reduce it.

Not everyone takes an ultra-pessimistic view, for example, writing in the Daily Express today, Stephen Pollard says the problem has been greatly exaggerated:

“[Campaigners] have never produced a shred of convincing evidence to back up their claims about the supposed harm bags cause.”

The total used in Britain, a staggering 11 billion per year “seemed to shock people [but] The government, supermarkets and environmental activists began a campaign to cut down on that...figure.”

So that “Within three years, by 2009, there had been a 40 per cent reduction to 6.5 billion a year.”

That is certainly a start, but what of the environmental damage they cause?

“The most outlandish claim, however, is the most widely repeated – that millions of creatures are killed in the sea by plastic bags, either because they swallow them or because they get tangled up.

The WWF said in 2005 that 200 species, including whales, seals and dolphins, were affected....[but] The leading scientific study was carried out in 1997 by David Laist of the Us Marine Mammal Commission. In 2008 he confirmed his findings: ‘Plastic bags don’t figure in entanglement. The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag.”

The same author, Stephen Pollard, doesn’t think much of other claims about the dangers and sheer inconvenience of plastic bags, but the problem is real, and it will not go away if we ignore it. Last year, the charity Thames21 organised a clean up of the river during a particularly low tide. They claim to have removed a quarter of a million plastic bags over a ten year period from one area alone. Thames21 and similar organisations are doing valuable work, but it would be better for all of us if this sort of work did not have to be done in the first place. So what is to be done?

Clearly we can all reduce our consumption, but the main problem with plastic is that it is non-biodegradeable; unless it is incinerated, the plastic bag your greengrocer puts your fruit in will be around long after you and your great-grandchildren have been expunged from the face of this planet. However, three years ago, eighteen year old Canadian student Daniel Burd came up with the idea of decomposing plastic bags using micro-organisms. This can apparently be done at home, but for people who rather would not, the only alternative at the moment is to dispose of plastic in the proper container for recycling.

Ingenious though Daniel Burd’s idea is, there are sure to be even better ways to tackle this problem and the problem of waste and packaging generally. Would it not be possible to manufacture bags from some sort of rice paper or other material that can be degraded rapidly, or even fed to animals? In the long term we need more Daniel Burds to solve this problem, but in the short term ideas such as reusable cloth bags may provide a stop gap.

[The above op-ed was first published July 30, 2011.]

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