Plastic Bags and the Ecological Revolution at Hand

10/08/2016 11:40 | Updated 10 August 2016

A report published in the journal Science in 2015 estimates that about eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in global waters each year:  "We calculate that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean."  In the UK alone there are five plastic bags for each foot of coastline.  And last week it was announced that plastic bag use in the UK has plummeted since the introduction of a 5p charge last year. Since the levy was enacted October, 2015, 640 million plastic bags have been used just across seven major supermarkets in England.  Compare this to 2014 where the waste reduction charity Wrap estimates that these very same supermarkets had used 7.64 billion bags over one year and the result show a six fold reduction in plastic bag use.

However, the self-congratulatory media is hardly impressive to those aware of the ecological damage originated by plastic bags and the need to completely ban plastic bags instead of charging 5p for them.  Given the feasible ecological alternatives to plastic, it is troubling that a capitalist measure was endorsed as a "solution" instead of the enforcement of biodegradable bags made from organically-sourced materials. Many other countries in Europe and cities in North American have completely banned plastic bags and while the UK has actively sought to block the use of biodegradable bags.

In 2011, the Italian government introduced a ban on the sale of non-biodegradable plastic bags after studies demonstrated that 73 percent of human waste on the sea bed off the Italian coast was composed of plastic bags.  Since this time, Italy became the first country to promote the use of compostable plastic bags with its major supermarket chains having sold biodegradable plastic bags.  However, its smaller shops were still using non-biodegradable bags until 2013 simply because the United Kingdom objected to the Italian ban claiming that it was illegal under EU packaging laws and internal market rules. Outraged by the UK move, Italy pointed out that it has 8,000 km of coastline to protect and that this ban had already improved conditions compared to countries like Ireland which merely imposed a bag tax similar to the recent UK model.  So, in opposition to the UK, Italy still passed the plastic bag ban and began enforcement of the law in 2013 with the exception of bags with a thickness exceeding 200 microns which could be reused and those bags containing a percentage of recycled plastic of at least 30 percent if intended food use.

And from 1 July of this year, France followed in Italy's path outlawing the distribution of plastic bags in French shops given the 122 million plastic bags polluting the the 5,000km French coastline.  Now compulsory to replace single-use plastic bags with  paper, biodegradable, or fabric,  the content of organically-sourced materials will gradually increase from 30% in 2017 to 60% in 2025.  The ecological plastic bag industry is a boon for manufacturers of organically-sourced bags. But scratch the surface as to which countries are producing which type of biodegradable bags, and it is immediately apparent what lies behind the UK's drive to keep Italy in the plastic bag business.

There are two primary types of degradable bags.  One is the "biobag" which is typically based on starch-based films made from fibre from corn, soy, or potatoes.  These bags decompose in a controlled composting environment in 10-45 days.   Oxo-degradable bags are the second major type of degradable bags, quite distinct from biobags.  Oxo-degradable bags are additive-based biodegradable bags rely on additives to the resin to expedite degradation upon exposure to various conditions with the breakdown beginning as a chemical process followed by a biological process. As they are a mixture of plastic and corn or potato starch which partially break down into water and CO2, they are not completely biodegradable as they tend to fragment into microplastic, remaining an environmental hazard and harming the ecosystem and its fauna.   Where biobags made of starch or fibre are compostable, oxo-degradable are not with myriad studies demonstrating the difficulty of recycling the latter.

While oxo-degradable bags do not have the support of green campaigners, they pose a conflict of economic interest for the UK as they are marketed by the British-based company, Symphony. On the other side of this paradigm is Novamont, an Italian company which produces bio-plastics from vegetable matter.  These are the products which environmentalists support but the political designation of both options make each side in this argument appear to be managing economic interests, not necessarily ecological ones. Happy coincidence or not, the Italian model is the more ethical and ecological solution. One can only question why the UK has not followed Italy and France by outlawing plastic bags while removing the 5p tax.