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Energy»What should I do with old plastic carrier bags?

»Monday, November 9,2009

As you might imagine, a planet on the brink of ecological collapse (ie ours) has a number of pressing concerns. The plastic bag issue really is not one of them, and yet in terms of air time and emotion it punches well above its weight, particularly the landfill weight of plastic bags – they take up just 0.3% of landfill space. Other experts like to point out that their impact on wildlife has been over-egged, too. While you'll often hear that 100,000-plus marine mammals are killed every year by ingesting plastic bags, Greenpeace experts say wildlife deaths from plastic bags are few and far between.

But while we can establish that they are not the earth's primary nemesis, they are nonetheless extremely annoying. And, incidentally, there is a link to oceanic pollution: 6% of marine sediment has been found to be polyethylene, implicating them in microplastic pollution of the oceans.

The single-use carrier bag also represents an unconscionable use of resources. According to an Australian study, the energy consumed and embodied in manufacturing a conventional supermarket carrier is significant, with 8.7 bags equivalent to driving a car 1km. Depending on which report you read, in the UK we use between 9bn and 17.5bn plastic bags every year (thanks to voluntary schemes and greater awareness and use of non-plastic bags, retailers say they have halved the number of plastic bags they've given out since 2006). The non-production of 800m bags is equivalent to removing 92m car kilometers. So the first thing to do is to make sure you don't accumulate any more.

But as we've acquired the wretched things at a rate of 160-350 a year for many years (again depending on the report you read), we should all have enough by now. Strangely, even zero tolerance of plastic bags does not equal zero waste. Some bright sparks have just transferred their affections to paper bags. A 1991 US study that still appears to stand found that paper bags produced more air pollution, water borne and solid waste and required more space in landfill than plastic bags.

The only benefit being that you might be able to recycle paper bags more easily. Plastic-bag recycling rates remain low and in most normal schemes carrier bags are likely to be a contaminant rather than a valued material stream. Partly this is because initiatives have focused on cloth and reusable bags rather than clawing back some of the energy input from recycling. Recycling is also dependent on market value and there's not much of that in lightweight bags when the world has billions of them.

I suggest you turn this on its head. Plastic bags are undeniably useful – they can carry 2,500 times their own weight – so reuse each one extensively. Hand them down to future generations, turning the fact that a plastic bag might take 1,000 years to degrade into a virtue. Give them as presents. The world's remaining plastic bags should become family heirlooms.

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