All aboard the Ban Bag Bandwagon

Commentary, Environment, Lee Harding

The fish in Finding Nemo had made their great escape. After a far-fetched plan and an unlikely set of circumstances, five fish made it out of the window and into the ocean. But as they each floated as buoyant prisoners in their plastic bags, one looked and said, “Now what?” How ironic that is the very question those on the ban plastic bandwagon need to ask.

The Great Pacific Ocean Patch, some claim, is the size of Texas. This swirling mass of garbage, it is said, is full of plastics that will never break down—to the detriment of marine life and eventually of people. But as many scientists have already noted, the amount of garbage is sparse and bear no resemblance to the marine equivalent of a landfill. Not all the garbage is plastic, and 60 per cent of what is plastic, is discarded fishing gear. Not even an animal activist like Pamela Anderson could ban fishing, though she might be able to distract fishers for awhile.

What can be banned? Plastic bags!

Montreal and Victoria have enacted bans, while Halifax and Edmonton may soon follow. Merits aside, a ban of anything the environmental movement doesn’t like is smart politics for a government that wants to look green. It is straightforward to enact, and has no direct cost to the taxpayer. It has none of the pitfalls of say, a renewable energy investment that fails in its goals and makes political friends richer and taxpayers poorer. Legislators need not fear a scandal that could ambush them for banning anything. They need only endure the justified grumbles of people who wish they had more freedom and fewer rules.

Back to the question: If we ban disposable plastic bags, “Now what?” Ah! Here the plot thickens and leads to an ironic conclusion more astonishing than Nemo finding his parents.

In 1976, Mobile Oil brought the Swedish invention of plastic bags to America to replace the default choice: paper bags. Would environmentalists always against the petroleum industry push us back to paper? This would mean fewer trees for them to hug. More seriously, it would also mean higher carbon emissions in the production of the bags and even in their transportation. This is because paper bags have greater bulk and weight, requiring more trucks burning more diesel fuel just to get the bags to market.

Plastic bags could also be replaced with cotton bags, if poison is your thing. The World Wildlife Fund reports that although cotton accounts for 2.4 per cent of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24 per cent of the market for insecticides and 11 per cent of pesticides. Plus, cotton is the thirstiest crop ever, needing 5,000 gallons of water to produce a single pound of cotton. A cotton bag preforms even worse than a paper bag on carbon emissions, and would need to be re-used 131 times to have the same carbon emissions as a single-use plastic bag. Besides that, it would consume even more water in washing, for without this, e-coli and other bacteria collect on a re-usable bag.

Can you guess what the most environmentally friendly alternative to disposable plastic bags is? The answer is…taa-daa–non-disposable plastic bags! This holds true from almost any angle.

The superiority of a permanent plastic bag was demonstrated in a “Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags” study released in 2011 by the Environment Agency of the United Kingdom.  The extensive study examined global warming potential, abiotic depletion, acidification, eutrophication, human toxicity, fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity, marine aquatic ecotoxicity, and petrochemical oxidation. The re-usable plastic bag came out on top in all but one category when compared with six alternatives.

Concerns about ocean ecology and garbage cannot justify the demonization of plastic bags. Just one thing, though: if you’re on a boat or on the shore—don’t throw garbage in the water. Courtesy and responsibility are important, but something governments can’t adequately legislate.