The evils of the plastic bag have been much exaggerated
In an article written by Stephen Pollard entitled “The evils of the plastic bag have been much exaggerated,” which appeared in the Express Newspaper on Saturday July 30th 2011. Stephen Pollard puts across a rare, but very poignant article in defence of the humble carrier bag.
THERE'S a famine in Somalia. economic growth is paltry. Crime is rampant. But what’s the issue that seems to drive some people to real anger? Plastic bags.
That’s right. The fact that we are now using more plastic bags than we have done for the past few years has given rise to all kinds of ever more apocalyptic claims about the destruction they are causing. And they are, if you’ll excuse the pun, rubbish.
Here are the facts. Green campaigners have been targeting the use of plastic bags for years. They have never produced a shred of convincing evidence to back up their claims about the supposed harm bags cause.
But in 2006 a government body, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), produced its first proper statistics on the use of plastic bags. The total – 11 billion – seemed to shock people. The government, supermarkets and environmental activists began a campaign to cut down on that 11 billion figure. Within three years, by 2009, there had been a 40 per cent reduction to 6.5 billion a year.
Plastic bags became distinctly uncool and “bags for life” the height of chic. In 2007, for example, Sainsbury’s launched its cotton shopping bag designed by Anya hindmarch, with the slogan “I’m not a plastic bag” splashed across it. It cost £5 in the supermarket but started selling on eBay for up to £200.
Yesterday Wrap produced its figures for 2010 and the use of plastic bags is on the increase again. Last year we used 6.8 bil-lion plastic bags, a five per cent rise on the 2009 figure.
Judging from the reaction to this news you’d think every user of a plastic bag had been guilty of dumping nuclear waste in the street.
The recycling minister Lord Henley threatened to introduce legislation. In some parts of the UK that has already happened. From October, all shoppers in Wales must pay at least 5p for a plastic bag. Northern Ireland is now consulting on a similar charge. And although the Scottish administration has backed off there is a lot of pressure from campaigners for the idea to be revived. Yes, plastic bags cause litter which can be distinctly unsightly.
There are few more annoying eyesores than carrier bags caught up in tree branches. It makes sense to use the “bags for life” that supermarkets go out of their way to sell us.
But the truth is that the supposed environmental threat from plastic bags is one of the great myths of our time, consistently shown to be nonsense by all serious studies and based on a distortion of the evidence. The only serious argument against plastic bags is that they are so unsightly. The claim repeated ad nauseam is that they take 1,000 years to decompose and so cause far more problems than ordinary litter.
But this needs to be put in perspective. Of all the waste that goes to landfill only 20 per cent is from households. And of that, just 0.03 per cent is plastic bags. Their use could be cut to zero and it would have almost no impact on landfill. 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. Indeed, the United Nations Environmental Programme estimated – guessed would be the more appropriate word – that over a million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed annually by plastic in the oceans. And it is all nonsense.
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 impact of bags on whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals ranges from nil for most species to very minor for perhaps a few species.
For birds, plastic bags are not a problem either.” The claim that more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds die every year is based on a 1987 Canadian study that found that between 1981 and 1984 more than 100,000 marine mammals, including birds, were killed. But the study does not mention plastic bags once. It is about discarded fishing nets.
EVEN Greenpeace accepts this. Three years ago one of its marine biologists David Santillo said: “It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags.
“With larger mammals it’s fishing gear that’s the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren’t an issue.”
Even the supposed fact that they take 1,000 years to degrade is nothing of the sort. Some studies have indeed come up with the 1,000 year figure. But others say it is very rare for a plastic bag to survive for longer than 10 or 20 years. The truth is we simply don’t know.
Many of the so-called environmentally friendly alternatives are actually worse. Friends of the earth says that paper bags are more damaging to the environment: “you can use and use and use plastic bags but paper bags, material bags and degradable bags all release methane once they are thrown away which is worse than carbon dioxide for the climate.”
Plastic bags make up just 0.03 per cent of the UK’s litter. We need to start acting on evidence, not myth.