A Plague of Plastic

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26 | M | La vida A plague of plastic The use of ‘free’ plastic bags is not as easy to curb as lawmakers had hoped. By Stefana Serafina. Photo by Lee Woolcock. W The average ‘useful’ life of a plastic bag is 15 minutes, but it will take centuries to decompose. eekends are when people tend to do the most shopping, so it may come as no surprise that those days are when a lot of plastic bags get used. What is surprising, however, is just how many plastic bags that turns out to be: four million
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  26   |   M   |   La vida  A plagueof plastic The use o ‘ree’ plastic bags is not aseasy to curb as lawmakers had hoped. BySteana Serafna. Photo by Lee Woolcock. The average ‘useul’ lie oa plastic bag is 15 minutes,but it will take centuries todecompose. W eekends are when people tend todo the most shopping, so it maycome as no surprise that thosedays are when a lot o plastic bags get used.What is surprising, however, is just howmany plastic bags that turns out to be: ourmillion on a busy weekend in Barcelona,according to Ajuntament gures, and 14million over that same weekend or all oCatalunya.Created only three decades ago, the plas-tic shopping bag has spread around theplanet with the speed o an epidemic. Likecars, buildings and asphalt, it has becomean intrinsic element o modern living. De-ying geographical rontiers, plastic bagshave inundated urban and country land-scapes alike, colonising big cities in thedeveloped world, rural areas in Arica andindigenous communities in the heart o theAmazon jungle.How did this happen? An invention oindustrial society, plastic bags are virtuallyree. They are so cheap and easy to produce,and so innitely available in all orms, col-ours and sizes that shoppers around theworld just keep reaching or them—one orthe tomatoes, another or the mushrooms,yet another or the oranges. Between 500 26-27. plastic bags-REPDF.indd 3422/4/09 17:28:36  billion and a trillion plastic bags are con-sumed worldwide each year, according tovarious estimates.Prompted by a grim environmental prog-nosis, however, consumers have begun toreconsider the real price o the ‘ree’ plasticbag. It is estimated that each bag has an av-erage utilitarian lie o 15 minutes (rom ashop to a fat, say), but may take hundredsor even thousands o years to decompose. Sowhat happens to the millions that are beingdisposed o every minute? Besides adorningthe landscape—branches o trees, roadsides,elds and pavements—they are oten oundin the bodies o whales, sh and seabirds thathave died as a result o swallowing them.British marine biologists have recorded plas-tic bags as ar as 120 miles rom shore in wa-ters as deep as 4,000 metres. Startling imag-es have appeared in the media: cows in Indiachewing on bags (hundreds o cows in Indiaare said to die each year choking on plasticbags), pink famingos strangling themselveson bags impossible to untangle or pelicansdead ater diving or a prey that turns to be aplastic bag. Last year, Whitey, a 10-oot longcrocodile that was part o the Australiangovernment’s wildlie tracking programmedied unexpectedly and 25 garbage and shop-ping bags were ound in his body.Shopping bags made o plastic can lit-ter areas ar removed rom urban reality.Because they are completely unequipped todeal with the created waste, the stark plasticfags can be seen fapping along the shoreso the grand Amazon tributaries. Landllsaround the world are cluttered with single-use plastic bags, adding to the ever-growingmountains o waste. In Catalunya or exam-ple, plastic bags constitute 22 percent o thelandll waste.Understanding that the environmentalprice o the ‘ree’ plastic bag has provedhigher than humanity can aord, govern-ments around the world have initiated meas-ures to curb their use. Bangladesh was therst state to ban plastic bags in 2002, andIreland ollowed by introducing a substantialtax on plastics that reportedly reduced theuse o the notorious bags by 90 percent. InBhutan, plastic bags are ocially considered‘to make the country less happy’, and there-ore their use is not allowed. China has alsoprohibited the ultra-thin bags; in France andItaly bans are expected to go into eect in2010. At the same time, people have realisedthat paper bags are not a better alternative,as they consume much more energy to pro-duce and recycle, and they oten end up inthe landlls instead o being recycled, whichincreases their environmental ootprint.Late last year, the Generalitat announcedthat starting in January 2009, there would bea ban on the ree distribution o plastic bags,making Catalunya the rst Spanish autono-mous community to do so. The new legisla-tion was going to require that supermarketsand shops charge or the bags, deciding ontheir own how much that extra charge wouldbe. The proposal, however, sparked heateddebates in the Catalan Parliament, and wascriticised by both commercial organisationsand green activists or its hastiness, and orsetting up inequalities and conusion amongcustomers.The controversy was sidestepped just mo-ments beore the proposal was made intolaw. Instead, in the rst part o this year anewly-created commission has been workingon an eective system to replace the plasticbags, looking at voluntary agreements withmerchants and supermarkets to stop theirree distribution. Despite the late legislativechange-o-heart, Día supermarkets is con-tinuing with its policy o charging customersor plastic bags, and Bonpreu supermarketsare doing the same.“I always try to bring my own bags madeo abric or to carry things in my hands whenI can,” said Anna Ametller, a native Catalanand a Barcelona resident o many years. Anartist, who oten uses recycled materials inher work, Ametller ully supports a plasticbag-ree city. “I think non-degradable bagsshould be completely eliminated. We canmake bags better with eco-materials and adesign that makes them more versatile, witha longer lie and not or a single use only.”Although this vision may take a whileto maniest as reality, it is clearly one thatBarcelona’s Ajuntament is eager to encour-age. In December, the city made 30,000 cot-ton bags available or ree at its Punts Verds(recycling points around the city) as a way topromote a more sustainable shopping bag al-ternative. Reducing the city’s waste and os-tering a culture o re-use and recycling is oneo the main targets in Barcelona’s Agenda 21,a programme aimed at minimising the city’senvironmental impact, conserving naturalresources and developing renewable assets.“I know biodegradable plastic bags ex-ist, but I have yet to see them here in Bar-celona,” said Diana Martinez, a San Diegonative who recently moved here. She saidthat she always brings a mesh bag or hershopping and that she’s been getting betterat telling shop cashiers that she doesn’t needa plastic one. “We need alternatives that arebetter environmentally, but i the means tobe greener aren’t available or convenient,most people will not go out o their way tochange, unortunately. I bio-plastic wassold here, I would use it, and try even harderto not bring any bags home.”With the Spanish government expected toimpose a nationwide ban on non-degradablebags in 2010, the prospects are hopeul thatwe are witnessing the beginning o the endo the plastic bag era. Catalunya is aimingto reduce the use o the bags by 30 percentthis year and by 50 percent in 2012. Yet, noone underestimates the act that the will-ingness o Barcelona’s residents to be parto the change is the most crucial step alongthe way. As the city’s Agenda 21 recognises,sustainable and environmentally-sound liv-ing requires not only better socio-economicorganisation and more ecient technologies,but “also and especially, changes in civic at-titudes.”For real change to take place, the rstthing that needs recycling is the consumer’smind. La vida   |   M   |   27 Between 500 billionand a trillion plasticbags are consumedworldwide each year... More info: Fundació Catalana per a la Prevenció de Residus iConsum Responsable—local organisation seeking a‘plastic bag-ree Catalunya’: www.residusiconsum.org/catlliurebosses  To fnd stylish bags to replace the plastic ones: www.reusablebags.com   Article— The great plastic bag plague:  www.alternet.org/environment/61607/   26-27. plastic bags-REPDF.indd 3522/4/09 17:28:39
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