People’s Problems with Plastic.

28 June 2015

There has been growing anger in recent years; hatred even. Not about the time wasted queueing at the post office, or how long it takes to commute to work these days, but a hatred for plastic bags.

Increasingly they are seen as a public danger. They litter our streets and oceans and fill up our landfill sites, and are fair game for abuse in the media. Evident when the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper  ran a ‘Banish the Bag’ campaign or the LA Times printed an editorial entitled ‘Plastic bags are an environmental menace’.

Media coverage like this has an impact, shown when a recent survey asked members of the British public if plastic bags should be banned, and 65% of respondents said ‘yes‘ . A belief supported by Greenpeace, who actively request members to, “Help put an end to this unnecessary pollution. Write a letter to your city council member and encourage them to ban plastic bags in your community.”

So why do people hate plastic bags?

Certainly they are a very visible part of the litter in the street, and their habit of getting caught in tree branches can make a flag for the cause of banning plastic bags.

Indeed, plastic bags are a far from perfect solution to carrying things, and they have huge drawbacks to both society and nature. For example, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature they ‘kill 100,000 whales, seals and turtles a year‘, as a result of eating of being trapped by plastic bags. They also take up landfill space and can take up to 1,000 years to anaerobically decompose fully.

Furthermore, Wikipedia states that, “12 million barrels of oil are used each year to make plastic bags for the American market.” and that, “A car could drive about 11 metres on the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag.”

So what are plastic bags?

Lightweight bags are typically made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic. This is a durable, strong, yet (when formed thinly) flexible material. 85% of the resources for making HDPE is from a waste by-product from the natural gas refining process. If the ethane were not used in plastics production, it would have to be burned off somehow, anyway.

In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 191 million barrels of Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) and Natural Gas liquids (NGL) were used to make all American plastics. Those barrels equal 2.7% of American petroleum product usage. So the 12 million barrels used for plastic bag production constitute less than two tenths of one percent (0.169%) of American petroleum consumption.

This isn’t to argue that 12 million barrels a year isn’t a lot, but instead it is interesting to note how how such a marginal use of natural resources, has become so demonised in public opinion.

Why are people speaking so loudly against plastic bags, and not against people who drive to the local shops that are only one mile away, or people who replace their mobile phones every two years, or use the lift instead of walking up (or down) one or two flights of stairs?

Where is the campaign to ‘Ban car journeys shorter than 2 minutes’?

So why should people like plastic bags?

They are often labelled as ‘single use bags’, but are, more frequently than not, reused. For example, following the introduction of a bag tax in Ireland in 2002, green campaigners celebrated that  grocery bag usage had been reduced by 90%. Yet other plastic bag usage increased by 400%. The most likely cause for this being that reduced grocery bag usage meant that people simply began buying bags for the things they used grocery bags for, such as holding domestic waste.

There is also much controversy over the claim that ‘100,000 marine animals die each year from plastic bags’, with many questioning the data behind it. This is because the figures are allegedly from a misinterpretation of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland. The study noting that 100,000 marine animals were killed from discarded plastic fishing nets.

As The Times (of London) reported, “ Fifteen years later in 2002, when the Australian Government commissioned a report into the effects of plastic bags, its authors misquoted the Newfoundland study, mistakenly attributing the deaths to ‘plastic bags’. It was only in 2006 that the authors altered the report, replacing ‘plastic bags’ with ‘plastic debris’. But they admitted: “The actual numbers of animals killed annually by plastic bag litter is nearly impossible to determine.”

If a government commission can misunderstand scientific data, then it is understandable how the media and public can also make ill-informed opinions. This is a dangerous combination, as media and public pressure have a huge influence on government policy.

Pop-science, whilst seemingly opening up the amazing world of science to the man on the street, can have a very detrimental affect. As Lord Taverne, the chairman of Sense about Science, states, “This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counter-productive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn’t achieve anything.”

So what should plastic bag makers do?

There are three possible ways to tackle the ‘problem with plastic bags’. The first is to make greater efforts to recycle and reuse them. At present, as the US Environmental Protection Agency states, only 14% of plastics in the category that includes ‘bags, sacks and wraps’ is recycled (albeit better than the 9% of total plastic waste).

However, beyond the current actions of Local Councils promoting waste seperation at point of use, and the separate collection days for different wastes, there seems to be little that can be cost effectively done,  in both dollar and natural resource terms. The acquiring, usage and disposal of plastic bags comes from individual household behaviour. Only re-educating will change this behaviour.

The second is to increase efforts to improve bags’ biodegradability. Much work has been done on this, but a plastic bag that is as compostable as paper has yet to be found, and until this happens, they will always be seen as the worse option at the supermarket checkout.

The final option is to explain to people that these bags do not lead to the destruction of the planet. If people understood that they are made out of a process’s waste product, are frequently reused in homes and do not kill nearly as much as claimed, then public perception may well change.

Given that two of these three solutions require changes in public action or opinion, then perhaps the best solution is to increase investment in environmentally sustainable plastics. Whilst this option does require a lot of industry will and plenty of money, it is a comparatively easy choice. Because when it comes to the science of plastics, re-educating the public is the hardest option of all.