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PAST THE POINT OF PLASTIC BAGS?

(Emma Askew, 2018)


Plastic is a seriously topical environmental issue.


With high-exposure through media-coverage, campaigns and documentary-making, modern society is certainty aware of the possible consequences’ plastic can have, particularly on the ocean.


With this, when asking the public what comes to mind when thinking about the plastic problem in the ocean, this was a predominant scene described:

Much like the relation between climate change and the scene of a polar bear on a melting ice cap, this scene has been greatly used in the media due to the recognised issue that plastic poses a threat to marine ecosystem health. In particular, sea turtles mistake plastic bags for their main food source, jellyfish.

From this, the attention was drawn to one plastic problem in particular, plastic bags.

So why do we continue to produce plastic bags? If we know they cause many environmental complications, then why do we still have them? Why not just ban them?


PLASTIC BAGS: THE BACKGROUND


Firstly, in the 1970s, plastic bags became extremely popular as they were a cheap and easy way to encourage shopping, enhancing business and consumer activity. They are made from a low-density polyethylene, which is derived from refined oil or cracked natural gas; showing the production of plastic bags itself is an environmentally damaging process. As well as this, the prints on plastic bags can be highly toxic, especially to marine wildlife. Yet, importantly, the petrochemicals used do not degrade quickly, which creates the problem that after the disposal of plastic bags they can last hundreds of years; showing that they will continue to effect ecosystems until they are physically removed.


PLASTIC BAG BANS:


It is important to consider that many countries already ban the use of plastic bags, showing that many governments recognise the highly unsustainable and environmentally harmful qualities of the product. These bans enforce a change in consumer behaviour to use alternatives (such as natural raw materials, including canvas or paper bags) and break away from the habit of needing plastic bags just because they are readily available. A total of 59 countries across the world have banned plastic bags so far, including Bangladesh (2002) and Rwanda (2008). Yet, significantly, a large proportion (36%) of the bans occurred in the last 3 years alone, such as in France (2017), New Zealand (2019) and Latvia (2019).



PLASTIC BAG BANS:THE CHALLENGES


However, it is not as simple to ban plastic bags without any socio-economic or alternative environmental complications, in which a few challenges are listed below:

Brown paper bags and canvas bags may not be a truly sustainable alternative. For example, the cotton used to make canvas bags may negatively impact the global water supply and paper bags could encourage deforestation. Countries are struggling to fully eradicate plastic bags even after a ban. For example, in Morocco, plastic bags are still being illegally produced and sold at a relatively large scale despite the ban in 2015. Can a ban be completely effective if it cannot be monitored or governed sufficiently?Less developed countries are challenged with the issue of affording the biodegradable alternatives, such as fabrics.


OVERVIEW: WHAT NOW?


In relation to the challenges that are faced with banning plastic bags, it could be important to make bans firmer, as shown through the successful ban in Kenya which was recently praised for being the world’s harshest plastic bag ban (2017), including the terms of:


Punishment for carrying plastics bags includes heavy penalties and jail terms. Manufacturing and importing plastic bags attract penalties ranging between $19,000 and $38,000 and jail terms of up to 4 years. Industrial packaging and garbage bags are however exempted from the ban. The ban was imposed after several failed past attempts to control the plastic bag menace such as regulating the thickness of the bags” (World Atlas, 2018)


With these ‘harsh’ bans, it could completely eliminate the potential for illegal production which would make the ban far more environmentally effective in the long-term. Yet, it should be considered that the issue in affording alternatives must also be addressed in order to make the ban socio-economically effective. Moreover, a major change in modern, societal behaviour could act as a more important tool than any harsh penalties to a ban as ultimately without the demand, plastic bag production would dramatically decrease. Although, a study shows that one trillion plastics bags are still being produced a year, suggesting that plastic bag bans could need to be tackled at a much larger, global scale in order to force society to use less, to sufficiently benefit the environment.

However, positively, there are organisations (such as Surfers Against Sewage, UK) that aid the removal of plastic bags amongst many other plastics from beaches and rivers. This is an action that can be enforced now and requires no legal encouragement. This is one of the most crucial steps in reducing environmental damage from plastic bags because inevitably harsh bans cannot act as the sole solution as the plastic bag waste on land or in oceans that is currently present needs to also be removed. In summary, the significance of using local-scale and immediate actions, strict laws to prevent plastic bags in the long-term, and an interdisciplinary management approach needs to be recognised to save global ecosystems from devastation.



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