Friday, February 01, 2008

Plastic bags: recycling in practice

The latest eco-fad is the movement to eliminate the use of plastic grocery bags. Suddenly, the planet can be saved if only we eliminate plastic bags. This post by Rob Lyons explains the small origins of the movement to moralize the use of plastic bags. On the good side, it does show that one individual can make a difference. On the bad side, it shows (again) that emotion and personal morality usually outweigh science in the creation of an ecomyth.

As Lyons points out:
  • The cost-benefit ratio of the modern plastic bag is extremely high – they cost little financially or environmentally, and they are extremely useful.
  • If anything, the plastic bag is a victim of its own success. These wafer-thin carriers are durable, ridiculously cheap to mass produce and have all sorts of wonderful ancillary uses, from bin liners to bicycle seat covers.
  • They do not contribute very much to overall waste levels. The bags handed out for free by supermarkets weigh about eight grams. We use absolutely loads of them each year: about 10billion in the UK, which amounts to 80,000 tonnes of waste. It sounds like a lot, but in fact it represents only 0.27 per cent of all municipal waste produced annually in the UK. Moreover, the bags are produced using a part of crude oil – naphtha – that generally can't be used for anything else. If naphtha wasn't used to produce bags, it would mostly be burned off.
O.K. let's recap: plastic bags use part of a resource that is otherwise waste by-product and burnt. They have minimal volume and are mostly re-used, recycled, thereby negating the use of another product. In our household of 5 cats, plastic bags are used to remove scooped, used litter, rather than a purchased garbage bag. Most people use them as garbage bags, as re-usable carry bags and for a host of different functions: maybe that's why they are so popular -- they are versatile. In one Adidas ad a young soccer fan collects enough bags to fashion his own soccer ball.

So, plastic bags fit most everyone's definition of a sustainable product: so why are they being vilified?

Plastic bags will not degrade in landfills for several thousand years. So? In many situations we should be burning our garbage anyways as fuel and if they are landfilled for several thousand years before degrading so what? How many years did it take to create the oil they are derived from in the first place? Nature has a quite different timescale that transcends the human lifespan.

Here is George Carlin's take on the situation.