If polar bears are now poster boys for climate change, then plastic bags are the new pallbearers for poor planet earth.
From San Francisco to Modbury (a quaint Devon town that has sprung from nowhere to become Britain’s ban-the-bag cheerleader), the plastic bag is, all of a sudden, persona non gratis. People it seems have woken up to the fact that any wider social commitment to reduce carbon emissions sits uneasily alongside the continued energy-intensive mass production of this instantly disposable product (a mayfly of consumer culture, the humble giveaway bag averages but 15 minutes of useful life).
Concern for sea turtles and other marine animals (who are haplessly swallowing large quantities of bags, or fragments of bags) has been another powerful driver for change. Both sets of motivations appear genuinely altruistic – rooted as they are in worries over well-being for future generations of people and marine wildlife.
However, there is no real substitute for having a clear, present and direct threat against current human well-being to really effect political change. In China and Bangladesh, such a threat has arisen and the use of thin (<0.025mm thickness) plastic bags has been prohibited at the highest level. A proliferation of small bags is blocking watercourses and sewers in these two nations, greatly exacerbating flooding, especially during the monsoon season. As a result, Asia has quickly become a world leader in terms of outright plastic bag bans.
Unfortunately, legislation is proving both difficult to enforce and controversial. In Bangladesh, the use of flimsy bags is still widespread, six years after a ban was first introduced. While in China, where the ban became law at the start of 2008, bag manufacturer Suiping Huaqiang Plastic, which employs 20,000 people, has already gone into liquidation.
More ‘battles of the bag’ can be expected in the future, especially given that some alternatives – including greater use of giveaway paper bags, linen bags and the like – are not uncontroversial themselves, given that carbon is still emitted through their manufacture. Cynics will also worry that plastic bag bans cast far too comfortable an illusion of sustainable living.
Many families, it seems, abandon the use of disposable plastic bags the same week that they buy a big plasma screen telly (perhaps in celebration of their imagined carbon neutrality). But only the most curmudgeonly of cynics would deny that plastic bag bans are, at least, a step in the right direction.
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