Bagging the plastic bag

By Bhushan Salunke
The Devil’s Advocate, serving you a cocktail of humour, wit and sarcasm

We are drowning in plastic. It is everywhere. From “single-use” plastic shopping bags to plastic boobs. We are living in a plastic world.

Plastic “pollution” is not limited to land only. It is found in the oceans too. Plastic debris, occupying an area three times the size of France, is now floating around in the ocean, according to our PM Scott Morrison.

How is plastic waste getting into the ocean system? Are people actively seeking out an ocean to deliberately dump their plastic garbage into it?

According to WWF, plastics make their way into the oceans in three ways:

1. The plastic that you dutifully dropped into your recycling bin may not actually end up in a recycling plant but in a landfill. (Horror! horror!) From here, it gets blown around in the air and finally enters the sea.

To test this, I wrote my name on a plastic bottle and threw it into the recycling bin. A year later, when I was frolicking on the beach in Fiji, a plastic bottle washed up to my feet. I picked it up and lo and behold, it had my name on it.

2. People litter on the streets, the litter enters the drain systems and finally ends up in the oceans

3. Plastics get flushed down toilets, such as wet wipes, cotton buds and sanitary products.

“We are not recycling plastics in this country, it’s going into landfill or it’s going into boats and being sent up to Asia and ends up washing out of rivers and creating islands of plastic off the coast,” Morrison told Channel Seven. “We have got to get a capable recycling industry that can produce materials out of recycling that can be used elsewhere in the economy. We have to be confident that when you put the stuff in the bin it’s not going to end up in landfill or end up on a beach in Indonesia.”

So, really, the problem is not plastic per se, but the way it is managed, disposed and recycled? Are we unfairly demonising plastic?

Images of turtles choking on plastics injects an emotional angle to the topic, condemning plastic to the gallery of most-wanted. Why do turtles choke on plastic? Because they mistake it for jelly fish on which they feed. Sounds a silly thing to do, for the turtles. I asked my young son if there was any immediate solution to saving the turtles. Pat came the answer: “Change the colour of the plastic bags to pink.”

Invented in 1907, plastic has become an integral part of our lives. Millions of items are made out of plastic. Life without plastic is unimaginable and unaffordable. Modern life, as we know it, will cease to exist if not for plastic. Inexpensive plastic has raised the standard of living in poor countries. Imagine poor people having to buy expensive metal containers instead of plastic containers to carry water. Replacing natural materials with plastic has made many of our earthly possessions cheaper, lighter, safer and stronger.

The “green” activists in their enthusiasm to saving the planet have succumbed to the knee-jerk reaction. They have targeted the humble single-use shopping bags as the public enemy number one, for causing plastic pollution in the world.

About 127 countries, including Australia, have “banned” the single-use plastic bag. You know the situation is grim when even the terrorists jump into the fray. I fell off my chair and rolled all over the floor laughing, when I read that the Al Qaeda-backed terrorist group, al-Shabaab, has banned the use of plastic bags saying that plastic bags “pose a serious threat to humans and animals”. If al-Shabaab, a bunch of assassins, suicide bombers and rapists, is endorsing the ban, the problem is real and we need to sit up and take action.

Supermarkets such as Woolworths & Coles have responded to the public outrage and stopped providing free plastic bags. One year on, has the ban worked? No. The ban has spectacularly backfired and it is doing more harm than good. Plastic has re-entered the environment in other “avatars”.

Here are a few facts:

  • People now spend $15c to buy a “reusable” bag. These reusable bags, good for 2 to 3 uses, take longer to break down than the single-use bags. The supermarkets are profiting by selling these bags. Where do these “reusable” bags go to, when they die? To the landfill, of course.
  • The single-use bags are not truly single use. They get re-used as garbage bin liners, dog poo collectors, doggy bags and several other uses. Now, the sale of garbage bags has gone up by 120% benefitting the plastic industry. More plastic has replaced plastic.
  • The cloth bag alternative has to be used 131 times to be better for the environment than a single-use plastic bag and cloth bag production consumes more energy, resources and water, thus impacting the environment
  • Paper bags are no “green” solution either. The overall energy required to produce a paper bag is between four to five times more than a plastic bag
  • Paper production is a particularly water intensive process, using approximately 15 times more water
  • Paper bag production produces 70% more pollution than plastic bags
  • Paper manufacturing generates 80% more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic bags

According to National Geographic, 91% of plastic is not recycled. Wow! There are a number of reasons for this. Some plastics cannot be recycled. New plastic is so cheap to produce, compared to recycled plastic. So, recycling plastic is not commercially viable.

It is also cheaper to export plastic waste to countries around the world than recycling it. Eight million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Countries like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam contribute to 60% of ocean plastic due to mismanaged landfills.

I’m part of a Facebook group which encourages “low waste living” and the members give away household items for free, to each other. The members also fiercely compete with each other in their attempts in reducing plastic pollution. One member posted that he had banned balloons from his kid’s parties (sorry kids!). Another person wanted to give away hundreds of plastic knives and forks collected over the months, through online food orders, to homeless people (what about the plastic containers and paper bags that came with it?)

A recent post created a sensation. A person posted on the page that she had refused to have the small plastic tag that is used to tie the plastic bag at the top of the plastic bread bag, when you buy bread at the bakers. (Ignore for a moment that the bread was still packaged in plastic. LOL). Facebook exploded with congratulatory messages on her achievement in stopping a puny piece of plastic from destroying the planet.

Are people not seeing the forest for the trees? Are people focussing on the tip of the iceberg and risking crashing into it? Single use plastic bags constitutes 1%-2% of the total plastic production. Who is waging war on the remaining 98%?

How are “clean up” campaigns effective when some people keep cleaning up other people’s trash? Do people get a warm and fuzzy feeling about saving the earth, when cleaning up other people’s garbage or is it a “holier-than-thou” attitude? Isn’t educating the litterers a better option?

Plastics are demonised for many wrong reasons. It is not the material that is the issue; plastic is resource efficient, flexible, hygienic, durable and lightweight. Other materials don’t match those sustainable properties.

The fundamental challenge is the careless disposal of plastic, resulting in land and marine litter, rather than the material itself. The key questions are whether there is the recycling infrastructure, safe entrapment and disposal method and recycling responsibly. When parents have to deal with a problem child, merely punishing the child is not the solution. The parents have to look into the root cause for the bad behaviour.

Let me be the messenger of bad news. Experts predict that plastic production will increase by 40% in the next few years. Fossil fuel companies have already invested more than US$180 billion into building plastic production facilities, according to the Guardian. While people are busy waging war on a 2-cent plastic bag, plastic Godzilla is looming large just around the corner.

Here’s me, throwing a few sharp darts at those short-sighted keyboard SJWs (social justice warriors) who don’t see the big picture problem.

The keyboard that you use to type out your furious messages is made from plastic. The smart phone that you cannot do without has plastic in it. The volume of the car you drive around is 50% plastic. Just look around and see for yourself that you are using plastic 24×7. Are you holding a plastic pen while scribbling away those anti-plastic thoughts? When sipping latte in a flashy coffee shop in a trendy suburb, remember that you are paying for it using plastic (credit card).

Let plastic be not left “holding the bag” for our incompetence in its management, disposal and recycling.


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