Let’s use jute bags!
The one thing everyone who has been traveling to developing countries knows, is that plastic litter is everywhere. Eye catching piles of plastic accumulate along roadsides, in rivers and beaches. However, in recent years, many Asian and African countries have been at the forefront of implementing initiatives to promote a plastic bag-free environment.
Bangladesh has been the first country to ban all polyethylene bags in 2002, after they were found responsible for the chock in the drainage system that caused the 1988 and 1998 floods. The ban, besides benefiting the environment and the beauty of the landscape, also led to the revival of the jute industry. Jute grows naturally in Bangladesh, it requires less energy for processing than polythene, is biodegradable, and contributes to economic development through employment and income generation.
In South Africa, plastic bags used to be referred to as the ‘national flower’ before the government, in 2003, introduced a ban on bags thinner than 30 microns. Similar measures have been enacted in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia. China, a main supplier of plastic bags, banned their free distribution in 2008.
In India, where bags clog drains and cause the death of thousands of cows, environmental groups are particularly effective in raising public awareness. The manufacture, sale and use of thin plastic bags were banned in some Indian states: in Himachal Pradesh, where their irresponsible use was damaging mountain landscapes and chocking the soil, infringing the ban could lead to imprisonment for up to 7 years and a fine up to $2000.
The ban has not had a similar echo in Europe: Italy is the only European country to have implemented a nationwide ban on plastic bags. Ireland has been the first country to introduce an environmental levy on their distribution, witnessing a 90% reduction in use and raising $9.6 million for a green fund during the first year of implementation. While retailers saved money stocking a smaller quantity of bags, litter dramatically decreased and 18,000,000 liters of oil have been saved. Other European countries followed Ireland’s example and introduced similar taxes while in the United States the restrictions have been enacted only by a few municipalities.
Why do the US and many European governments not take a firm stand against the use of plastic bags? Economic interests play an important role. In the US, the plastic industry sued jurisdictions willing to implement a ban for failing to conduct an investigation of the environmental impact of plastic bags, which could turn out to be long and costly. Similar efforts by the plastic bags industry led to the withdrawal of a tax proposed in 2003 in the UK, where the average costumer uses 167 plastic bags per year, 4 times more that the average Irish consumer. Despite many supermarkets encourage costumers to bring their own bags with loyalty points and one big chain witnessed a 80% drop in their use by charging their distribution, there is still no nationwide law restricting their use. Only a few measures have been implemented at the local level: Wales introduced a 5p levy in 2011 and the town of Modbury (Devon) has totally banned them.
What’s wrong with plastic bags?
Approximately 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year. Their production requires petroleum and natural gas, which are non renewable and cause pollution. Most of them end up in landfills, where they can take up to 1000 years to decompose into tiny pieces that contaminate the soil and water ways, act as sponge for toxic chemicals, and eventually enter the food chain. They are one of the most common types of refuse in the ocean and one of the most prevalent types of unsightly litter on land. They also contribute to the death of thousands of birds and marine animals each year. From an economic point of view, millions of dollars are spent annually to clean the cities from plastic and, in the US alone, 12 million barrels of oil are needed each year to satisfy a consumption of 100 billion plastic bags.
What is the solution?
All that glitters is not gold! Although a levy is effective in making their use a thoughtful choice, other measures are needed to reduce our dependence on plastic and paper. Studies show that levies and bans could even lead to an overall increase in the use of plastic bags of all kinds: an investigation conducted by the Hong Kong plastic industry shows that the overall use went up by 27% since a levy has been introduced because people started buying more garbage and dog clean up bags. In other instances, bans and taxes made production shift to paper and thicker plastic bags. While paper bags appear to be less of a litter problem, their manufacture needs a high consumption of raw material and causes more CO2 emission. On the other hand, thicker reusable plastic bags do not last long enough to repay for the environmental costs of their production.
Recycling? Reusing? Biodegrading?
According to the General Environmental Directorate of the European Community, only 5% of the plastic bags are collected for recycling. Because the cost of processing and recycling a ton of plastic bags is 125 times higher than the value of the end material, the process is not economically appealing.
The benefits of reusable plastic bags depend on their quality and on how frequently costumers use them. The material of cheap low-quality reusable bags, for example, is often mixed with plastic and chemical additives. On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal reveals that just 10% of those bags are regularly reused. Jute bags seem to be the only sustainable option in the market: they are organic and last for years.
Finally, biodegradable bags... To be environmental friendly, they should come with a certificate of complete biodegradability in a short, defined time frame; without certification, the term ‘biodegradable’ becomes meaningless. Many supermarkets distribute non-certified bags that can contain synthetic polymers made from fossil sources, decompose into microscopic fragments and accumulate in oceans.
What to do?
With this in mind, what can we do to help the environment? Well, we could start by using organic, fair trade/locally produced jute bags to go shopping, and reuse them again and again; and we could bring a cotton, folding bag every time we go out, just in case!
Author: Alice Fortini
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