Plastic, like diamonds, is forever: time to use fewer bags

Posted on July 31, 2012 by DrRossH in Plastic Limiting Regulations

Plastic, like diamonds, is forever: time to use fewer bags.

From reading the above posts it can be seen that many people do not understand the issue and are getting confused by all the tangent points of view.  From an engineering point of view we need to break the problem don into the various parts then work on those one at a time in order to solve the whole problem.  Otherwise as someone said above, people just get overwhelmed by the environmental problems of today and switch off.

First we ought to ought to be making a product that will last though the next 20 generations or more as plastic waste.  Bury it in a hole in the ground is out of site out of mind mentality.  This is not a sustainable approach.   What we make in our generation we should clean up in our generation.  Not leave it to future generations to clean up.  How can we justify using a plastic bag for just a few minutes just because we are too unorganised to bring a reusable bag with us.  Using it a 2nd time for a bin liner for a few days makes very little difference.  That plastic bag will last for centuries in a landfill or it will fragment into little bits and be blown all over the country side and our water ways.  Neither is good.  Is that what we want to be remembered by future generations, that we were too selfish to only consider our convenience over their environment for an item we do not need?

Someone said plastic bags are only 0.1% of a landfill as they are such thin walled bags so not a problem.   They do not get it.  Plastic bags are the number one item in a landfill.   They cause innumerable problems with clogging machinery, trip hazards, they blow out of the landfills into the surrounding environment, including the oceans for coastal based landfills.  A landfill is not a hole in the ground but a sophisticated biodegradation chamber where many things are broken down to their base constituents again.   Except plastic. 
The modern landfill, which is what many big municipalities are moving to, is quite a complex and expensive engineering operation.  With reticulation of leachate, gas collection and export or electricity generation and export, chamber capping, leachate control, and groundwater monitoring.    Hence to impede this with contents in plastic bags costs the landfill its efficiency.

People use these plastic bags for many incorrect reasons and without knowing it, create more problems and more waste.  When material goes to a landfill in a plastic bag, that bag’s contents are then sealed off from the landfill and they will impede the function of a landfill.  If people collect their recycled bottles and cans etc in a plastic bag and them dump that in their kerbside recycled bin, when it gets to the recycle sorting facility that bag and its contents are picked up and thrown to the rubbish and all that recyclable content is lost to the landfill.  Recycling is about preventing the further use of new materials from being mined or farmed.  With a growing awareness of our limited resources then we need to be thinking about recycling more and more and getting recycling efficiency up to 80% or so not the 20% odd we have now.  It goes back to the convenience for me now attribute mentioned above.  People need a lot of education as to why not to use a plastic bag.  Use of a reusable one saves another plastic bag from going to a landfill every time.

What about bin liners?  The grocery store plastic bag is a small bag and you have to use a lot of them all the time, which is why many people justify to themselves walking out of a store with 10 bags of groceries all the time, every week.  One of the other commenters tried to confuse the issue about having to reuse a reusable bag 30 times before it was worth it.  It is a lot simpler than that.  If you want a plastic material bag to line a bin then go buy a larger bag and one that is ‘landfill-biodegradable’.  That way you use far less bags and they will biodegrade away in a few years.  i.e. you are not leaving a legacy of plastic waste for your descendents.  If you are aghast that you have to actually go buy a bag when the grocery store gives them for free then remember there is no such thing as free, someone somewhere is paying.  You pay in higher grocery store prices, the environment pays, your descendents will inherit your waste and pay in a loss of the environment quality that we enjoy now.  So you paying a few cents for your landfill-biodegradable bin liners is a lower cost than the alternative.

So we have 1) covered  the taking of plastic bags and the problems they cause in their disposal, 2) shown the bag needed as a bin issue is a fallacy, 3) discussed the beneficial use of landfill biodegradable bags.

Some people and this one is the hardest to understand, some people say it is my right to use a plastic bag and the government has no role in interfering with that.  While there is merit in the concept of that thought, we are now past those days.   With so many people and so much disposable plastic waste being generated every day and people taking very little responsibility for it, then something has to change.  If we all used plastic bags and then all took them to a recycle facility to support business that made products from them, then that argument may have more merit.  But people don’t, they toss their bags in the trash without a second thought.  Even when there is a recycle bin next to a rubbish bin, people still dump their waste to the rubbish bin.  Until people are voluntarily willing to be responsible for their plastic waste they are making then we have to have some sort of intervention to stop the environment being polluted and save these valuable resources for future use.  Many municipalities do not collect plastic bags in their kerbside recycling programs.  So users have to drive to distant special plastic collection centres for plastic bags or dump them in the trash.  I.e. we are set up to not recycled bags.  Therefore in reality to get this problem under control there has to be government intervention to get us off our current path of high levels of plastic bag waste on to a better path or little plastic waste. 

Ban the bag is a good option to do this.