By Olle Akesson
On Monday 5th October the UK government introduces a long awaited plastic bag charge. To curb the use of plastic bags, shops will charge at least five pence for each bag you use, with any profits going to charity. While it is a shame that the England has decided to make it needlessly complicated and only applying it to shops with more than 250 employees, it is a welcome piece of legislation and has been incredibly successful in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales where it has been in practice for several years. In Wales alone the number of plastic bags used fell by almost 80% and £22 million of income has been donated to charities.
Plastic pollution is a global issue and it needs to be tackled at source. Around the coast our beaches are cleaned by wonderful volunteers on countless beach cleans, but all too often their efforts are undone when the next high tide brings in more litter. Plastic chokes and traps animals and some, like turtles, birds and fish mistake them for food and all too often die of starvation caused by a digestive system full of plastic. Plastic, never completely decomposes, it only breaks down into smaller and smaller particles. These are mistaken for plankton by fish and enter the food chain, eventually ending up on our dinner plates where we unknowingly eat them. The environmental impacts of plastic are irrefutable, but there is more to this issue and it deserves digging a little bit deeper.
News outlets, politicians, campaigners and the public describe the bags as ‘Single use’ and this is where part of the crux lies. You can clean plastic cutlery and re-use them, but how many people do? You could clean a paper plate, but realistically, who does?
The thin bags you find at a supermarket checkout, commonly referred to as ‘single use’ are called high-density polyethylene (it just rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it?), or HDPE, bags. These are often discarded after a single use but there is no reason for this label and they should be reused. The Environment Agency produced a Life Cycle Assessment of different types of plastic bags. The report outlines how much energy is needed to produce a single plastic bag, from raw materials, production, delivery and eventually disposal or recycling is taken into account. The report is a bit dry but the outcomes are interesting.
The report doesn’t include the environmental damage caused by plastic bags escaping into the environment, so it is important that at the end of their useful life the bags are either disposed of or better yet, used as a bin bag. That ensures it doesn’t end up in the sea or on land.
The same amount of energy used to make a single cotton bag could make 131 plastic bags. To put it another way, if you reuse a HDPE bag five times, you would need to use a cotton bag 655 times. If you do your shopping once a week, you’d have to use your cotton bag for 12 years. When it starts to wear out you could give your plastic bag one final lease of life as a bin bag. If you do you would have to use the cotton bag 851 times, or 16 years of use. And you wouldn’t need to buy any bin bags.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like plastic bags. A land fill isn’t the right place for any plastic and I’d love to be able to put my rubbish straight into the bin. But until our refuse collection changes we should minimize our reliance on any plastic and reuse bags as much and as often as we possibly can.