Roger writing the LAWmag
14
Sep 2007

Blast'em With Plastax - The Popular Uprising Against Plastic Bags

As you read this article, somewhere, in or on a great sea of our Planet Earth, a living creature, perhaps a turtle or a bird, has just tried to swallow a plastic bag, or has just had that bag handle slip over its head; an errant plastic bag thrown overboard by some anonymous passenger, with the colorful cruise ship gift store logo only slightly worn by the salt water.

"Plastic bags?" you say. "Big deal!"

Plastic bags are a big deal.

In the U.S. alone, an estimated 12,000,000 barrels of oil are required to produce the 100 billion plastic bags used annually (the "plastic" used in bags is high-density polyethylene, which is made from petroleum).

Plastic shopping bags, according to National Geographic, "can take hundreds of years to break down; 1,000 years by other estimates. As they break down, they release poisonous materials into the water and soil" and "consumers use between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags per year worldwide".

Time.com reports that only 3% of plastic bags are recycled; the City of San Fransisco’s estimate is 0.6%.turtle ingesting plastic

Just as troubling, although less so to short-sighted humans, "Plastic bags in the ocean can choke and strangle wildlife".

In every square mile of ocean it is estimated that there are over 46,000 pieces of plastic, including plastic bags.

Resuablebags.com reports that hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food.

A study showed that the average maritime bird carries about 40 pieces of plastic in their stomach at any given time.

And plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest.

They have become such an eyesore in Africa that as they catch on tree branches, Somali locals call them "flowers of Hargeisia", after their capital.

To quote Apollo 13: Houston, we have a problem.

Legislative initiatives have been very slow in coming. Can’t do’s, won’t do’s and shouldn’t do’s pop up in regards to the alternative of paper or cloth bags not to mention the convenience of consumers.

But not all politicians accept the easy out of "not in my back yard".

Some, such as the nations of South Africa, Ireland, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Eritrea, Somalia, Taiwan, and the cities of San Fransisco and Bombay, and up to 30 Alaskan towns, have "plastax-ed" or outright banned the use of plastic bags to cart grocery items.

In Bombay, there have even been "police raids on factories and shops that may be manufacturing or handling them".

In Rwanda, CNN reports that: "Go to the airport in Kigali (the capital) and if you have a plastic bag, they will confiscate it."

Two arrows: a ban or a tax.

According to the BBC, Ireland has levied a 15¢ per bag tax and as a result, has "cut their use" by 90%.

All over the world, it is not the national or regional governments that are leading by example.

Instead, this legislative revolution, one long coming and long overdue, is being spearheaded by small, local or municipal governments.

Llandysilio, Modbury and Hebden Bridge, all in England have banned or imposed a plastax, with a move for nationwide legislation for a 10% plastax on plastic bags being pushed by London and which may see the light of day in Parliament in November.

The very small town of Leaf Rapids, Northern Manitoba (Canada), population 500, issued the following bylaw on March 22, 2007:

Being a By-Law of the Town of Leaf Rapids for the establishment of Single Use Plastic Shopping Bags.

NOW THEREFORE upon passing this By-Law, the Council of the Town of Leaf Rapids, enacts as follows:

1. THAT the Town of Leaf Rapids will be Single Use Plastic Shopping Bag free effective April 2, 2007.

2. THAT retailers in the Town of Leaf Rapids will not be permitted to give away or sell plastic shopping bags that are intended for single use.

3. THAT a person who contravenes this By-Law of the Town of Leaf Rapids is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction of a fine of not more than $1,000.

4. THAT where a contravention continues for more than one day, the person is guilty of a separate offence for each day it continues.

EXEMPTIONS TO THE BY-LAW

Small plastic bags that are used to store non-packaged goods such as: a) Dairy products b) Fruit, vegetables or nuts c) Confectionery d) Cooked foods, hot or cold e) Ice f) Smaller bags for fresh meat, fish, candy and poultry g) Bags that cost more than $1.50.

While too many national or regional governments snore behind the wheel on this no-brainer issue, the people are trying to turn the tidal wave of plastic bags by promoting the use of cloth grocery bags or, in Uganda, banana leaves.

But just as with a tidal wave, this problem cannot be solved by sheer will, not against the power and might of plastic bag distributors like The Gap, Walmart, Kroger or Loblaws, eager first and foremost to cater to what they’d call the consumer inside, dishing out cash, rather than the activist outside, demanding expensive and counter-profitable changes.

That animal in or on a great sea of our Planet Earth that, when you started to read this article, first gagged on that plastic bag, is dead now as its no-longer struggling body slips lifeless below the waves, the secret drama not unlike the tree that fell in the forest when no one was watching, even with the bright logo of the gift shop fading to nothingness.

I'll do my bit and have written to Environment Canada on August 24, 2007 stating:

"Pursuant to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, I am hereby raising a possible violation of the Act by grocery stores in Victoria, British Colombia, known as Thrifty's, Save-On-Foods and Safeways, in that they extend to consumers freely upon purchase of groceries, plastic bags which they know, or ought to know are manufactured using high density polyethylene, a petroleum product, which requires approximately 1,000 years to break down and when it does break down, it releases poisonous materials. Further, only a small fraction of plastic bags are recycled and every year, over 100,000 animals die as a result of the ingestion or strangulation of or by plastic bags.

"I understand that a hard copy of this request must be sent to environmental protection review Canada and I have done so by surface mail to Director, Environmental Protection - Pacific and Yukon, Environment Canada, 201-401 Burrard St., Vancouver, BC V6C 3S5."

If I get a reply, I'll post it here.

POST-SCRIPT #1 (14 SEPT 2007): "Bagonaut", a self-styled masked (or should I say "bagged") anti-plastic bag crusader sent me a press release descibing his 24-hours in a giant cloth shopping bag, all to raise awareness on the issue. He's at bagonaut.com.


References and further reading:

  • Roach, John and Ives, Sarah, "Are Plastic Bags Sacking the Environment?", National Geographic News, September 2, 2003
  • reusablebags.com
  • Time 2007 Special on the Environment, "Just Say No to Plastic Bags"
  • City of San Fransisco at www.sfgov.org
  • Cobb, Vincent, "Reusable Bags Tackle Plastic Bag Mess" at theorganicreport.com (undated)
  • BBC, August 20, 2002 "Irish bag tax hailed success"
  •  BBC, May 14, 2001 "Bombay gets tough on plastic bags"
  • BBC News, July 13, 2007 "Bid to charge 10p per plastic bag"
  • CNN.com August 20, 2007 "Across Africa, a plague of discarded plastic bags"

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