Governments around the world, especially in the USA and developing countries, have for some years now been either imposing charges for plastic bags at shop checkouts or banning them outright. In most cases this has been met with initial annoyance from locals, followed by a grudging acceptance, and then usually, eventually, approval of the schemes. In England a plastic bag charge is on the way, and the number of paper bags now being seen on the high street as people walk home with their shopping has dramatically increased over the last few years.
So how much of a problem are plastic bags anyway? They’ve become the poster boy for environmental damage and waste issues, but is there any truth in the claims?
The problem is that most, not all, but most plastic bags tend to stick around for a very long time. They often don’t degrade for many years, and when they eventually do, they release unpleasant toxins into the ground. And we use an awful, awful lot of them – over 8 billion a year are given away in supermarkets alone. They can be recycled, though many of us don’t bother or aren’t aware, and huge numbers of them are discarded.
And that is the nub of the problem. You can argue about the carbon footprint comparisons between paper bags and plastic bags ‘til the cows come home, the number of trees needing to be cut down for paper bag manufacturers, but the big point about plastic bags, and the one that turns most people against them, is their ability to find their way into the natural environment.
How many times have you been walking through a forest or along a country lane, and spotted a torn plastic bag dangling from a tree branch or impaled on a hedgerow. More times than you can count, probably. They get caught by the wind and when they get stuck somewhere there they stay, as an eyesore. They clog up drains, they prove a massive hazard for wildlife, especially in the sea, and they just look ugly.
So this is the reason we’re seeing people get behind plastic bag bans, and it seems that this will increase as people look to the future, which is reusable shopping bags all the way.