Occasioned by this cute drawing that Krizand Vaz, a student volunteering for Green Impact, created, I’m resurfacing a post on the ”price of plastic”. This post was written on March by another student volunteer, David Stevenson, for the SITraN team. If you or your team would like to contribute to the blog, email email@example.com.
On overhearing an irate man complaining to the store attendant about the 5p bag charge in Tesco West St. the other day I thought it provided a good opportunity to examine the 5p bag charge and what impact it might have for sustainability. Bag charges are not new, in fact a mandatory 5p charge has existed since 2011 in Wales, 2013 in Northern Ireland and 2014 in Scotland. England has lagged behind only enforcing mandatory charges for plastic bags from the 5th October last year. Across the world countries are starting to turn their backs on plastic bags. Some countries such as Kenya and Bangladesh have opted to ban plastic bags entirely.
Undoubtedly it’s irritating when you get to the till to find you have left your trusty “bag for life” at home, but 5p is no great loss. Clearly, some students think otherwise as they manically try and shove a loaf of wholemeal and 5 packets of biscuits and an assortment of other items into their backpacks at the self-checkout counters. But the purpose of the charge is symbolic, it’s not going to raise billions to fund investment in clean energy, it’s a mild annoyance that encourages us to bring a bag from home. At the individual level, it’s difficult to consider what impact a few plastic bags might have, maybe that’s what the irate man I saw was thinking, but ultimately individual actions become important at a group level. Overall in the UK in 2014 7.64 billion plastic bags were dispensed just by major supermarkets, equal to 61,000 tonnes, a huge amount1.
Plastic bags are bad for the environment for several reasons, plastics are derived from oil, as a non-renewable resource which we need to reduce our dependence on. As oil is so important for so many aspects of our lifestyles, such as transportation, whilst we are still dependent on oil we should aim to conserve it where we can. Furthermore, rubbish is a major concern with plastic bags, which do not biodegrade, and can remain in landfill for hundreds of years. Even biodegradable plastics which have been developed require sunlight to decompose so will not break down in landfill. Although in Sheffield some plastic, such as bottles, can be recycled most, including plastic bags are not. Recycling of plastics is generally poor in the UK, around 85% of plastic waste ends up in landfill2, or in Sheffield is incinerated.
Plastic bags especially create problems in countries with underdeveloped waste infrastructures, where improperly disposed of bags can clog drains and sewers. Some reports even suggest that by blocking drainage and creating stagnant pools of water, plastic bags provide ideal breeding habitat for malaria carrying mosquitos3. Plastic bags may also be eaten by marine and terrestrial animals, potentially killing them. In India the Plastic Cow Project campaigns against plastic bags and the threat they pose to cows and other animals in India’s cities, veterinary surgeons working for the project have found numerous cows with rumens full of plastic bags and other waste.
On a global level concerns exist about marine pollution by plastic waste, it is estimated that in 2010 up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste ended up as litter in marine environments4. A consequence of this is the “garbage patches” in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, masses of plastic waste trapped in gyres, rotating ocean currents5. Such patches consist of tiny fragments of plastics up to 0.5 cm in diameter, but the study of this problem is difficult, research methods including satellites can’t detect these tiny fragments, so the exact size of these patches are unknown. The exact threats to marine organisms from these garbage patches are also unknown.
Already the plastic bag charge is reducing our consumption in the UK, in December Tesco reported an 80% decrease in use of plastic bags since the introduction of the charge in October. This is positive news, it shows that even in a short space of time, collectively we can change our behaviour to improve sustainability. This simple bag charge has started to change the social norm from relying on plastic bags to carrying reusable bags with us. If we can apply this logic to other areas of sustainability, such as energy usage, we could enact real change on the sustainability of our society. However, it’s not good news for all, a few weeks ago a packaging factory in Nelson, Lancashire went into administration with the company manager citing the English plastic bag charge as being responsible. This demonstrates that as we move towards a more sustainable society in the future, we will have to consider the impact this may have upon some businesses. However, businesses are among the best at innovation and responding to challenges, the alternate option of doing nothing and maintaining our current unsustainable ways will only hurt society more in the long run.
1. DEFRA. Carrier bags: why there’s a charge – GOV.UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/single-use-plastic-carrier-bags-why-were-introducing-the-charge/carrier-bags-why-theres-a-5p-charge. Published 2015. Accessed March 3, 2016.
2. Viridor. Plastic Recycling. https://viridor.co.uk/our-operations/recycling-and-resources/plastic-recycling. Accessed March 3, 2016.
3. UNEP. Press Releases February 2005 – Plastic Bag Ban in Kenya Proposed as Part of New Waste Strategy – United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). http://www.unep.org/documents.multilingual/default.asp?documentid=424&articleid=4734&l=en. Accessed March 7, 2016.
4. Jambeck JR, Geyer R, Wilcox C, et al. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science (80- ). 2015;347(6223):768-771. doi:10.1126/science.1260352.
5. Kaiser J. The dirt on ocean garbage patches. Science. 2010;328(5985):1506. doi:10.1126/science.328.5985.1506.