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Benefits of plastic bag ban far outweigh inconvenience

January 11, 2017

The environmental, societal and human health benefits of reducing plastic usage and waste require only a small adjustment on your part.

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By Wong Ee Lynn

The Selangor government’s ban on polystyrene food packaging and free plastic bags has been in force for over a week, and so far the objections to the ban are as follows:

  • That having to buy reusable bags and containers or pay for plastic grocery bags is a financial burden on consumers;
  • That consumers end up having to buy plastic rubbish bags for waste disposal;
  • That the ban will not reduce waste or pollution; and
  • That plastic bags can be safely and cheaply recycled or incinerated and there is therefore no need to ban or restrict their use.

In response to the above arguments, it is pointed out as follows:

• Plastic bags destroy the environment and endanger marine life

Reusable cotton and canvas bags and washable food and beverage containers can last for years and have over hundreds of uses. Therefore, investing in good quality reusable items is better for human and environmental health and makes economic sense in the long run. The only reason that “free-of-charge” plastic bags and polystyrene packaging appear affordable to the average citizen is because they are not aware of the cradle-to-grave environmental and economic costs of plastic waste.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that between 550 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year and most of it end up in our oceans.

Worldwatch Institute reports that at least 267 species of marine wildlife are known to have suffered or died from entanglement or ingestion of plastic marine debris. A European Commission study on the impact of litter on North Sea wildlife found that over 90% of the birds examined had plastic in their stomachs.

If consumers had to bear the cost of rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife, mitigating and repairing damage caused by flash floods and clogged waterways and cleaning up plastic litter, plastic packaging would not be free or inexpensive at all.

The reason states and nations have had to impose bans or taxes on disposable plastics is to encourage and expedite behaviour change, which would not take place on its own with sufficient effectiveness if we were to rely on voluntary plastic bag reductions. Governments, retailers and environmental organisations have spent millions on outreach and awareness campaigns with only minimal results. Education and awareness campaigns have little positive impact on an informed but apathetic population, and as such, different strategies are needed. Bans and fees for plastic bags are the catalyst for consumers to reduce their plastic bag usage.

• Even “recycle bags” contain plastic although it looks like fabric

The most common argument of consumers who claim to “need” free plastic bags is that they need the bags to dispose of household rubbish in, and would now have to pay for rubbish bags. However, most of the plastic bags given out by retailers and vendors are lightweight, single-use plastic bags that are almost never reused. To resolve this problem, the authorities should implement a policy allowing only the distribution of plastic bags above 20 micron (0.02 mm) in thickness and with a minimum capacity of five litres, and to charge consumers for it, to ensure that these plastic bags are reused for storage or waste disposal.

Unfortunately, the regulations and policies currently in place seem to mostly encourage the replacement of plastic bags with paper bags, purportedly “biodegradable” bags and cheap non-woven shopping bags. None of these are environmentally sustainable alternatives.

Oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, oxy-degradable, oxy-biodegradable, and degradable plastic bags are merely plastic bags with a chemical additive. This chemical additive breaks the plastic molecular ties and expedites the disintegration of the plastic. Over time, these bags break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers, which eventually contaminate our soil and water, and enter the animal and human food chain. Only bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432 are truly biodegradable.

Paper bags have a high carbon and water footprint, as more water and energy are used in the production of paper bags compared to plastic bags. However, as they are less harmful to wildlife and less toxic to human health, they can be safely used as food packaging. Considering their high water and energy use and low durability, the use of paper bags should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery bags and shopping carrier bags.

Non-woven shopping bags, referred to colloquially as “recycle bags” although this is grammatically and factually inaccurate, are made of polypropylene and are therefore also plastic although they look and feel like fabric. These should be avoided as they are not durable, break down into plastic fibres easily, and cannot be repaired, recycled or composted. Further, tests by consumer groups found that a large percentage of these bags contain lead.

It is thus reiterated that paper bags, non-woven reusable shopping bags and most brands of “biodegradable” plastic bags do not reduce waste or harm to the environment. The solution to the problem of plastic pollution and waste reduction should incorporate the banning of small, lightweight plastic bags, the distribution only of larger, thicker plastic bags for a small fee, the elimination of “greenwashing” alternatives such as non-woven polypropylene bags, the restriction of the use of paper bags only to food vendors and the implementation of incentives such as rebates and express checkout counters. Long-term solutions include practical initiatives to encourage and increase recycling and composting to reduce household waste and correspondingly reduce the need for rubbish bags.

• Banning, taxing or charging for plastic bags has been successful in other countries

In response to the claim that the ban will not significantly reduce plastic pollution, it is pointed out that many countries have banned, taxed or charged for plastic bags, and these measures have been proven successful.

In Denmark, since the introduction of a charge on plastic bags in 1993, the usage of plastic bags has been halved from approximately 800 million bags to 400 million bags, or only 80 bags per person annually. The People’s Republic of China banned lightweight plastic bags and imposed a charge for thicker, bigger bags, and reported a 66% drop in plastic bag usage. CNN Asia reported that China will save 37 million barrels of oil each year due to its ban on free plastic bags.

A plastic bag tax levied in Ireland in 2002 has reportedly led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter there. A study in San Jose, California found that a 2011 ban instituted there has led to plastic litter reduction of approximately 89% in the storm drain system, 60% in the creeks and rivers, and 59% in city streets and neighbourhoods. The European Union, Rwanda, Bangladesh, India and many other nations already have plastic bag bans or taxes in place, and these jurisdictions have seen significant gains from less plastic pollution. Considering that plastic bag bans and taxes have been successfully implemented and upheld in both developed and developing countries and jurisdictions, there is no reason why it cannot be workable and effective in Malaysia.

• Most plastics and polystyrene cannot be recycled

Despite the claims of the plastics manufacturing industry, most plastics and polystyrene cannot be recycled. Only plastics categorised under codes 1 and 2 are actually separated and collected for recycling. Polystyrene is hardly ever recovered for recycling due to its light weight, low scrap value, prohibitive cleaning and transportation costs and the fact that it is almost always contaminated with food, grease and other matter.

It costs more to recycle a bag than to produce a new one, and as such less than 1% is actually recycled. According to Jared Blumenfeld, Director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment: “It costs USD4,000 to process and recycle 1 tonne of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for USD32.”

As polystyrene and plastics are still made from petroleum, a non-renewable and heavily polluting resource, benzene used in the production of polystyrene is a known human carcinogen, and polystyrene and plastics release noxious gases including styrene, xylene and hydrogen bromide when broken down and incinerated, one should seriously question the flippant claim that plastics and polystyrene products could be safely and cheaply incinerated.

Helpful consumer tips

Here are some tips to help consumers remember to bring their reusable shopping bags and takeaway containers with them when out shopping next:

  1. Choose lightweight and portable reusable bags that can be folded neatly and tucked into your handbag or backpack. Make a habit of carrying them with you whenever you leave the house.
  2. Keep your shopping bags in your car if you are in the habit of driving to run errands and go shopping.
  3. Keep your reusable bags by the door that is the most frequently used in your home, where you will be most likely to see and remember them as you are leaving the house or putting on your shoes.
  4. Plan your shopping and include a written reminder in your shopping list.
  5. Purchase or DIY a foldable, lightweight bag that is small enough to hook to your keychain, so you will always have at least one reusable bag with you even when you are not driving or carrying a backpack.
  6. Wash your fabric reusable bags on laundry day (they hardly take up any space) to kill germs and remove dirt and odour, and hang them out to dry. Once they are dry, fold and stow them away immediately in your car, handbag, or backpack so you don’t leave them behind on your next shopping trip.

Plastic waste reduction measures should not be seen as a burden or sacrifice, but merely an adjustment. The environmental, societal and human health benefits of reducing plastic usage and waste are numerous and far outweigh the initial inconvenience of having to remember your reusable bags and containers.

Wong Ee Lynn is coordinator of Green Living Special Interest Group, Malaysian Nature Society.

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