3rd January 2017
Misinformation – leads to missed opportunities
The most quoted justification for banning lightweight plastic shopping bags is that they are discarded into the outdoor environment where they can lie or float around for decades, causing visual pollution, blocking waterways and harming wildlife. This is a fact, although the contribution made by shopping bags to plastic litter is minimal, accounting for only 0.5% of plastic waste, and their environmental impact is more often than not, grossly exaggerated.
A little research would have revealed that plastic bags, especially oxo-biodegradable (controlled-life) plastic bags are better for the environment than paper, cotton/jute, compostable and conventional re-usable plastic bags. True they are made from oil, but no oil is extracted for the sole purpose of making plastic bags. Plastic is made from a by-product of oil production that used to be wasted, so while we have the resource it makes sense to use it.
The truth is that paper bags are more expensive to produce and worse for the environment because their manufacture uses a lot of energy and water and produces noxious chemicals. They are also heavier, disintegrate when wet, and are unsuitable for frequent re-use around the home.
Re-usable cotton, jute or plastic bags do not fare much better because they are rarely if ever washed and have been found to harbor dangerous germs including E.coli and Salmonella, they also usually end up in landfill too, which cancels out the possible gains.
Lightweight plastic bags are the most inexpensive, convenient and cost effective way to protect groceries from damage and contamination and to take them home from the shops, they are also the most maligned, but there is an alternative.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic technology was invented and developed by distinguished scientists in Britain, France, Sweden, Italy, Brazil and the USA. It causes plastic to convert, at the end of its useful life into biodegradable materials, which degrade and biodegrade in the outdoor environment in the same way as a leaf, only quicker. This technology is already in use by innovative companies in the US plastics industry and yet several states are lagging behind countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East who have legislated to make its use, mandatory.
Switching to oxo-biodegradable plastic for lightweight shopping bags would give the Councillors of Brookline the opportunity to take the lead, ahead of California and other US states, in putting the environment first in a really pragmatic and easily implementable way.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic makes sound environmental and economic sense, because it has the same strength and appearance as ordinary plastic and can be recycled without the need for separation. It can also be made at little or no extra cost in existing plastic factories with existing workforce and machinery, thus safeguarding jobs in the plastic industry. Better still it allows the shopkeepers and consumers of Brookline to keep the best product for the job without the environmental baggage associated with it.