I've been getting really pissed off lately with people handing me re-usable cloth bags, or "Bags for Life" as they're called. Every single fucking day at some "environmentally friendly" event they're being given out like confetti.
So I thought i'd write down some of my thoughts about what ever was wrong with good ol' plastic.
You buy some grub from Tesco’s, other supermarkets are available, and then instead of putting it in the bin you throw it in a hedge or the sea where it looks ugly and, worse case, chokes a turtle or strangles a blackbird. "BOOOOOO, BAD PLASTIC. BAN IT. TAX IT!!", the eco-warriors cry.
Now, the plastic bag isn’t the killer. You are. You’re the bastard who didn’t throw it away properly. But the blame gets put on the bag regardless. It’s an easy target. It’s a poster-child for a society addicted to consumption.
Now if you had taken the bag home, used it for your sandwiches for a few days, carried your footy kit around a bit, and finally scraped up your dog crap from some Godforsaken pavement somewhere and put it in the bin you would have:
a) re-used an item lots of times (arguably way better than recycling)
b) safely ensured the carbon in your bag is sequestered (locked in the ground) for a few more thousand years
So… the carbon laid down by ancient trees, which they sucked from the atmosphere millions of years ago, is back in the ground again. Virtually no net release of carbon into the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter what form that carbon is in the ground in (be it oil, coal, or Tesco bag). The important thing is it’s in the ground and not atmospheric (like all the exhaust carbon and carbon released in the burning of rainforests).
The reality, which is quite hard to accept for some people, is plastic bags are so light, so cheap and such a good return on energy, that actually digging up oil for cars and using the waste for this other stuff (plastic bags or whatever) is a really sensible solution. One might argue. And one might also argue it's far more sensible than GROWING bags on scarcer and scarcer land.
(bear in mind these figures are total guess work, i'll do the maths when i'm more bored)
Imagine worst case scenario you used 10 plastic bags a week. Fair? Each one weighs a few grams, so absolute maximum you’ve used a couple of kilos of carbon in the form of plastic bags a YEAR. And a bit more carbon in the ultra-efficient manufacturing process. Now, if you have a car then each time you fill up you’re probably putting 30 litres (or kilos) of carbon in. I probably do that 40 times a year so immediately I’m using 1200 kg of carbon in my car. The carbon from the plastic bags is meaningless. Meaningless – as an example - from the point of view that people waste millions of $£E campaigning against them. They’re attacking the wrong devil in my opinion. They’re muddying the waters and I don’t think it’s doing the eco-movement any favours long term. But that’s just a personal opinion.
So what are the options. Instead we are offered Jute/Cotton/Hemp bags… Or “Bags for life” as they’re called. Perfect! Or is it?
Now each of these bags is grown on land that:
a) could be used to grow local food for local people.
b) might have been a forest/bog/wetland till last week when someone decided that because in the UK we suddenly have a big demand for Bags for Life we need to grow more industrial textiles.
c) they’re grown in mass agriculture, so they instantly have a big carbon footprint (pesticides, fertilisers, water use, organic or not)
d) and they rot (eventually). And when things rot they give off carbon.
Now admittedly carbon was taken in while the plant was growing, but there is still a load of surplus carbon in the growing (particularly) and manufacturing processes. They’re also heavy so shipping from India (typically) is expensive and, yep, uses carbon. But what's most frustrating and the real point of this but I must have about 20 or more of the damn things now. This was surely never the point of them.
So the jute bag in your left hand may only have plant carbon produced from sunlight in it, it’s got a lot of waste carbon associated with it. The plastic bag in your other hand will have a few grams of locked carbon in it, but importantly very little surplus carbon. So which is better? It’s a tough call...
The problem, as I see it, is people whipping up storms about the wrong things when they should be campaigning about the things that really matter for the future health of the planet: forests & oceans mainly.
Even though plastic bags might accidentally and very sadly kill a few turtles, and there is a large floating city of plastic in the Pacific, the thing that’s really killing our seas is commercial fishing. And what's really killing our forests is our demand for cheap oils, soya and beef. We are dredging them both completely clean of life and it’s a total tragedy. Against that level of destruction, plastic bags are nothing.
Now, tell that to the Transition Town movement.