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Environment Marketing the ecological revolution through plastic

Plastic bag charges have merely shifted around ecological waste while doing little to lower overall pollution levels, writes JULIAN VIGO

LAST week it was announced that scientists found a 30 per cent drop in plastic bags on the sea floor in European countries where charges were introduced for plastic bags in shops. 

And now there are plans for this charge to extend to small shops in England, taking the larger retail model to new heights. There is money to be made from this new “green” trend in reducing plastic bag waste, but digging a little deeper shows that this is merely more of a capitalist venture with very little ecological ethos within these measures.

If anything, these plastic bag charges have merely shifted around ecological waste while creating even more capital for those who produce these bags as the ecological damage to the Earth and its atmosphere has been as devastating as it has been profitable.  

Today, ecological disaster is the source of burgeoning economic markets that set out to solve and even reserve environmental damage. The innovations within the “green economy” can be quite positive when it comes to the ravaging of the planet due to the mining of minerals which, aside from the ecological damage caused, also produces environmental hazards to both human and animal life. 

So the fact that today people can buy ecological jewellery, relieved to know that their consumer choices are not hurting the planet, means that the larger capitalist system can be encouraged to change how money is made and the human role in creating everything from skull rings and ecological furniture. Yet one of the biggest contributors to the Earth’s demise is a more commonly used, everyday item: the plastic bag.

A 2015 report in Science estimates that an average of eight million tons of plastic waste is dumped in global waters each year, with each foot of coastline producing five plastic bags in Britain. 

In 2016, after a 5p charge was levied on plastic bags in 2015, it was announced that plastic bag waste in Britain had plummeted.  To those cognisant of the breadth of ecological damage caused by these bags, charging 5p does not solve the problem — it’s just a plaster covering a festering crisis. 

Given the feasible ecological options, it is curious that an economic levy was endorsed as a “remedy” to this situation over the creation of biodegradable bags manufactured with organically sourced and locally grown materials. 

While many countries in Europe and cities in North America have completely enacted bans on plastic bags, Britain dragged its feet and fought the use of biobags.

And the reason for this attempt to block biobags is entirely about money and not ecology.

First, let’s understand the types of bags that do exist.  There is the plastic bag and then there are two types of degradable bags. The “biobag,” typically made from a starch base of fibre from soy, potatoes or corn, which decompose in a controlled composting environment anywhere between 10 and 45 days.

Then there are oxo-degradable bags which are biodegradable bags that contain additives to the resin which expedite the decomposition with exposure to diverse environmental conditions where the breakdown starts as a chemical process and then as a biological one.

This mixture of plastic together with starch from corn or potato partially breaks down into water and CO2.  As a result, these bags are not entirely biodegradable and fragment into tiny pieces, also know as “microplastic,” which is itself a separate environmental hazard.

For good reason, oxo-degradable bags do not have the support of green campaigners. Also, they present a conflict of economic interest for Britain’s ecological health as they are produced by Symphony, the Britain-based company.

Yet Novamont, an Italian company manufacturing bio-plastics from vegetable matter, offers the best solution to plastic which is widely supported by environmentalists.  Yet even though the Italian model is the more ecological solution, there has been almost no criticism of the fact that Britain has not followed Italy and France by manufacturing or importing the biobag.  

Now with the recent reports falsely claiming that the purchase of plastic bags is the ecological solution, this will lead to the increase — not decrease — of plastic bags without any move towards more viable solutions to plastic waste. Even the National Trust has expressed recent interest in ditching plastic, even though there are few incentives for organisations to change the current model of charging for plastic bags.

Shortly after a report confirmed that plastic bags made up 73 per cent of the waste on Italy’s shoreline, the Italian government introduced a ban on the sale of non-biodegradable plastic bags in 2011. 

Italy became the first nation to champion compostable bags with the top supermarket chains selling biodegradable bags. Italy’s independent shops were obliged to use plastic bags for two more years because Britain objected to Italy’s plastic bag ban, asserting that it was illegal under EU laws and internal market regulations.

Indignant at Britain’s objections, Italy indicated that its 5,000-mile coastline had already benefited from the first ban, with ecological conditions vastly improved compared to countries which merely adopted a plastic bag tax (eg Ireland).

As a result, Italy passed a comprehensive plastic bag ban and began to enforce it in 2013. The only exception to this ban are plastic bags surpassing 200 microns in gauge which can be reused in addition to bags comprising at least 30 per cent of recycled plastic intended for kitchen use.

In 2016, France adopted Italy’s approach when it outlawed the plastic bags in French shops due to the 122 million bags found throughout France’s 2,200-mile coastline.  Replacing single-use plastic bags with paper, biodegradable or fabric is now mandated by law and the total content of organically derived materials will have to be at least 60 per cent by 2025. 

While the ecological bag industry is a blessing for manufacturers of organically derived bags, it pits countries like Britain, with no viable biobag manufacturing, to continue feeding the plastic bag market against those countries which do have a thriving biobag industry. 

Britain has much more work to do on eliminating the growing problem of plastic bags and other urgent matters of the ecology.  Just recently MPs have been pressing supermarkets to do away with plastic packaging, while on the other hand the government is doing very little to engage a plastic bottle scheme which encourages recycling. 

Robert Colvile of the right-wing think tank the Centre for Policy Studies might support the plastic bag fees above what he calls “heavy-handed regulation,” but recent history has demonstrated that the best ecological measures are made through regulation and not profit alone. 

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