Monday, September 14, 2009


Addendum/Caption - This from the Indy, who are quite active in this area. I'm guessing the expert advice on travelling will not include equating such trips with plastic bags, or... 'travel less'.

Addendum - As I stumble on or get given subsequent info, I'll add and mark as NEW

This blog sticks its nose in a lot of eco-areas.

One such has been the froth and bother (I don’t think what I have seen so far qualifies as sensible debate) surrounding plastic carrier bags.

And what I have seen in most media wasn’t really floating my boat. Especially as these days I am getting a tad too attuned to a bandwagon in complement to an agenda, with a dash of diversion from those more than keen to shunt stuff onto the public, all preferably with a levy or fine attached to fund some more box-tickers. As all readers of this blog will know, my main focus is always the enviROI.

Though much more extensive an issue in its totality, I decided to concentrate on an area that has been bandied about, but had been niggling me a bit on the actual enviROI+ contributions.

So I decided to write to a forum group hosted by the Institute of Packaging (Not so much ‘know a man who can’, but more ‘finding men and women with the ken’) as follows:

‘No one can have missed the debate on plastic carriers being played out in the major media. I have just read a factual explanation of the issues provided, and both biodegradable and compostable options were mentioned. However this seemed to be restricted to the processes of composting as it relates to the soil only. Are there no greenhouse gas consequences to these processes? And if so are they so negligible as to be irrelevant? I simply ask as I have been working on the assumption that atmospheric CO2/methane is the main priority to reduce, and I'm trying to get my head around how some of these options proposed are actually any better on this, more immediate, basis. I know it is much more complex, and while reuse must obviously be better in the long run (and seems to work in other countries), I am also aware that the provision of facilities here to enable effective recycling (especially without contamination) is less than it could be.’

I had, almost by return, a lot of very considered, helpful, though inevitably varied responses, most of which, joy of joys, took me well beyond my original, narrow focus.

Now, I am not a journalist. Wouldn’t claim to be. But then what I am seeing in the media these days hardly passes for worthwhile information anyway, so I don’t feel any less qualified to try and address this in print. I was, once, a scientist and engineer, and though I have forgotten more than most of these guys learned just yesterday, I feel confident that I can grasp most of what was shared.

So, and representing myself as no more than a seeker of truth and with a desire to know and share what actions I, and others, could and should be taking, what follows is my best summary – so far - of the situation regarding plastic bags.

Inevitably, it’s not as clear-cut as it might seem, or as some might portray. A gain here can mean a compromise there. And vice versa.

And it’s obvious that there are many pressures to bear on the whole issue, from the scientific to the political to the commercial to the social. No excuses in most cases, especially if the main aim was/is to save a bit of dosh, forge a career, score a brownie point or push a commercial imperative at the expense of what’s actually good for future generations. And it’s clear that there are as many dark forces at work to muddy these waters as those trying to clear the air. All I can say is I hope they enjoy their bonuses.

Thanks to some generous feedback, I have tried to order my thoughts, and hence this piece into some key areas, with inevitable subsets. I have also decided, as much as possible, to use actual quotes I have been given, as I see no value in changing the words of those who know (or at least seem to) what they are talking about. I am encouraged that most concur, and I with them. But where not that is perhaps for future comment and/or discussion, along with evolution of this blog post.

But to put this topic, and my optimistic quest to explain it simply and/or comprehensively in context, look at just a few of the ‘greetings’ I received:

‘I am not sure that this question can be answered at the moment, there are so many differing opinions and no 'one size fits all' answer.’

‘You are quite right most of the composting and degradable materials out there do give off CO2 as a bye product when they degrade. The problem is that at the moment the packaging industry is being asked to supply all options to all men and there is no real focus down a viable route.’

‘It is a minefield out there and anything that can help educate the consumer (myself included) is a good thing’.

Trying to break the raft of information down into some distinct groupings, and accepting one ultimately needs ‘a’ bag (actually, if our family is anything to go by make that at least half a dozen, which makes some ‘carry it on your person at all times' options an interesting engineering task. Tardis handbags/wallets?) to do the shopping we have the choice of:

Multiple use (Reduce?) – bags for life, ‘’I am not a plastic bag”, etc. From the store. From your local fashion outlet. A freebie from an eco-show. They can still be ‘plastic’, but more likely jute, cotton, etc. That means they have been made and got to point of purchase/donation. I don’t propose to go too much into these. It’s fairly obvious that these must be pretty optimal in terms of not consuming and disposing over and over. You just need to make sure they are to hand at all times. Fine if they can lurk in the car, otherwise not great for spontaneity. But let’s not ignore the always present matter of lifespan, which applies even here.

‘Then there’s reduction but if you reduce the bag or packaging too far then it can’t complete its function i.e. protection, containment, preservation, information etc. which means the product (s) are damaged and have to be thrown away putting more to landfill.’

Let’s just accept that some kind of option needs to be on hand if you do not/cannot come in with your own carrier(s).

Reuse – Get a bag for your shopping. Then find another use for it. Personally, those I do end up with all are usually found another function. Mostly this is as bin-liners. Now remember, if you don’t use a carrier bag you will still need another version. Logically, to me, that means purpose made bin liners. And from some feedback I’ve had these bags are not always that great on a few counts, from performance (they are very thin and rip vs. carriers) to even the consequences of their manufacture.

‘Then there’s reuse but because of hygiene regulations on lots of packaging you cannot reuse packaging. Carrier bags you can but have been designed to be so thin you now can’t.’

Recycling – Get a bag for your shopping. Then take it back to be turned into another bag.

‘Then there is recycling but in this country we don’t have the facilities.’

Or if they do exist, they are so woefully fragmented as to be near useless. Ignoring LA-based systems (though our local plastics-only skip has black bin-liners hanging off the handles, positively encouraging the things. Big up... or is it?), every supermarket has ‘em. But does Somerfield really want all the other varieties from Morrison’s, Tesco, etc in there? Especially if they are from a host of other materials (see later)?

So, accepting that a bag most likely needs to still exist, what are the options and the pros & cons when it comes to the last two?

Good old fashioned, antichrist plastic bags – The product of a trillion deaths a few million years in the making, now sucked up a pipe and squirted through a factory near you.. or via Taiwan. They can be reused, and they can be recycled... but only if mixed like with like (see above). On balance, if the activists get their way, I’d say they are going the way of the creatures whose decomposing bodies made them. An interesting carbon capture tangent I won’t go into here!

Biodegradable – The elephant in the room (well, what prompted me on this route). But like elephants’ ears, we are talking varieties. : In the absence of sunlight, degradable plastic bags will break down in to methane.’

‘At this point I have to explain that the world of decomposing bags is a complicated one. The sort of bags Tesco is now using are called degradable, meaning they break down via a chemical process rather than with help from bugs and micro-organisms. Like other plastic bags they’re made from fossil fuels, but chemicals are then added that make the bags break up over time. What’s the point of making bags that rot if they’re going to end up in landfill sites where they don’t want rotting waste? If, on the other hand, these bags are used in compost, this does make sense – the bags may decompose along with the food and plant matter and will then become a useful soil conditioner. Another type of degradable bag breaks down in sunlight. This is a nonsense too. It means that the only way for it to work is to have the rubbish lying around in the open air, essentially as litter. It has to be an eyesore for quite some time before it disappears.’

Biodegradables and oxydegradables all require certain conditions to degrade, if they don’t get these conditions (which vary from one product to another) then they just stay there without degrading. (Think of those newspapers found in a landfill site opened up some 60 years after they’d been put in and they were still readable, same principle really). Certain additives are put in to allow the product to degrade over a fixed time period so depending on when it goes into landfill can depend on if it will work.
Most of the above produce CO2.

There are a number of things being campaigned about;

1) amount of waste (which I hasten to add only 3% of total waste to landfill is packaging etc) going to landfill and the fact we are running out of space to put it. Hence solutions above.

2) CO2 been given out by landfill, cars, cows etc, etc. So we need to “lower” our carbon footprint.

3) With carrier bags there’s the animal welfare problem when the bags “escape” into the environment.
On greenhouse gases, all types of degradable plastics, paper etc., will emit a small amount of CO2, but paper and hydro-biodegradable (eg starch-based) plastics will also emit methane when they get into anaerobic conditions. This can happen in a landfill and in a composting environment. As methane is 23 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 this is a major problem. Fortunately oxo-bio plastic does not emit methane at all.'

UPDATE (19/Nov) - 'Carbon dioxide is evolved when a material is composted but only ~50%; the other 50% remains in the compost as organic matter. Most compostable materials are from renewable resouces and so the amount of CO2 evolved during composting is less than that taken up during the growing phase. If these materials end up in landfill then the process will become anaerobic and methane will be evolved and this is why there is legislation to avoid sending biodegradable materials to landfill. There are other mehthods of disposal however, and in some cases these may be more desirable, such as incineration with energy recovery or anaerobic digestion.

Compostable -

Compostable materials are mainly designed for municipal compostable facilities with high temperatures. There are about 2 or 3 in the UK that are suitable for this. Home composting requires different technology - again, some packaging or bags are designed for this; some are not.’

‘There are fully compostable carrier bags, PLA. The material is made by Dow called (Nature works) on the market now, the problem is they do not compost in a domestic situation. They need a commercial site which we do not have as yet. Some of the supermarket groups will not use it, as the main material is G M Modified corn starch. The soil association will not give its approval because of the amount of gasses given of when the compost is plowed back into the land.’

‘On composting, we think that home-composting should not be encouraged except for garden waste, because it will not usually reach the temperatures required to kill the pathogens in waste food etc. The best method is in-vessel composting at high temperature, and in these conditions oxo-bio plastics perform well.’

And I repeat this from above: ‘If, on the other hand, these bags are used in compost, this does make sense – the bags may decompose along with the food and plant matter and will then become a useful soil conditioner.’

'Actually the last thing you want is to send compostables to landfill because they break down very slowly, but critically, by anaerobic means releasing methane (CH4), a gas which is ca 20x more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2. You need compostables to be composted aerobically in special plants, as they do in the Netherlands, to really make it work. Of course in the UK this sort of facility doesn’t really exist outside of a couple of small pilot schemes eg Bath and North Somerset’s trial which you can read about on the net'.

These are more combo versions, so I separate them out as such:

Compostable materials take a long time to break down in landfill as there are no aerobic bacteria to break them down. Biodegradable break down BUT the biodegradable part is usually only a small percentage of the total material thus the basic polymer is still present.’ ‘I think the short answer to your query is that BOTH options produce the same results’

1) They Both go to land fill (even if in the ideal world you might expect the 'compostable' material to be composted at a user site) Wishful thinking, at best you could expect a 'compostable' material to be thrown away " well it will degrade won't it"
With going to landfill you still collect the landfill tax (about £186 / tonne I think)

2) BOTH materials have there energy wasted at end of use - No recycling, No recovery of energy.’
‘Starch-based bioplastics are made from natural materials such as corn, wheat or rice which are renewable resources. Potentially, there may be less of a depletion of fossil fuels when compared with traditional fossil fuel-based plastics .

The carbon emission/footprint will depend in part on the emissions and fossil fuel used with current production techniques through:
Transport of seed, planting of seed, spraying of crops, harvesting, transport to processing facilities and production processes, Fertiliser/pesticide manufacture and method of application (if applicable)

The composting process itself will release carbon dioxide and low grade heat. In the undesirable scenario that biodegradable plastics are landfilled, there is global warming potential due to methane emissions. By contrast, in the case of oil-based plastics, the carbon may be “locked up” for hundreds of years in a landfill. Other environmental impacts also need to be considered such as nitrogen oxide (N2O) emissions (c.283x global warming impact of CO2) and the eutrophication potential (i.e. the emissions of nitrates and phosphates into waterways) from the fertilising of crops.
A comparative LCA study was recently undertaken by Imperial College on thermoplastic starch (TPS) vs. polystyrene, a polymer commonly used for single trip retail packaging of fresh produce, fish and meat products.

Key findings arising from A.E. Harris’s report entitled “the Development of Biodegradable Biopolymer packaging and Sustainable Waste Management in the UK”, Imperial College, London (2004) are:
Disposal of biodegradable biopolymers has a small contribution to environmental impact. Waste-to-energy for electricity generation provides a net benefit Composting is the best disposal option for a biodegradable polymer. When disposed to landfill, a biodegradable polymer has the potential to generate more impacts than similar petrochemical plastics. The overall biodegradable environmental profile of the biopolymer, thermoplastic starch, is better than the petrochemical plastic, polystyrene (PS), even when the biopolymer is disposed of in its most environmentally damaging waste facility. These findings are supported by an earlier LCA study, reported by Novamont for its Mater-Bi foam grades of thermo-plastic starch (TPS), which showed significantly less embodied energy content and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relative to polystyrene.’

‘An additive can be put into molten polymer at the manufacturing stage, and which makes plastic degrade, then biodegrade, leaving water, a tiny amount of CO2 and humus, and trace elements. This type of plastic is known as oxo-biodegradable (or oxo-bio). The timescale for degradation can be set at manufacture, according to what the product is intended to be used for. We would encourage re-use and also encourage recycling. Our additive does not survive the recycling process, and can therefore have no effect on any new products made with recyclate. Products made with our additive can also be composted in-vessel. They do not emit methane, even in a landfill, and they emit no more CO2 than paper or starch-based plastic. However, the most important environmental benefit of oxo-bio is that all the waste plastic which gets into the rivers, the fields, or the oceans will self-destruct in a short time, leaving no harmful residues.’

The Players, their pitches... and the moving goalposts of the game –

The Industry

‘We all know that some products are overpackaged, but they are rare, most companies are liable for recycling costs because of the Packaging Waste (Producer Responsibility) Regulations and no (very few anyway) company will intentionally overpackage as it just ends up costing them money in recycling notes and lets face it, these days, the supermarkets are driving costs down, which in turn means that suppliers to the supermarkets cannot afford to overpackage, the supermarkets wouldn't allow it as it would interfere with the gross margins for both the supplier and the supermarket and ultimately, the price the consumer pays.’

“Packaging has such a bad reputation at present, mainly due to it being an 'easy' target, I spoke with a supplier of mine today and he was amazed when I informed him that landfills have only approx 27% packaging in them, if people in our industry aren't aware of the main facts, how can we expect the day to day consumer to be aware ?’
‘Most companies are investing a little in all of these options as there is no focus on the correct direction to go.’

From the Indy

I have to say that this initial heading cocked my eyebrow a tad.

Plastic bags help the environment
by Peter Davis
Director-General, British Plastics Federation, London EC2

And I can’t say the first few paras got me too onside with the argument either, but here it kicked in to a point worth considering:

'The real way to protect the environment and make a difference is not to ban resource-efficient carrier bags, but for London councils to bite the bullet and invest in more collection and recycling of waste and more energy-from-waste plants, where there is no environmental benefit to be gained from recycling, as opposed to relying on fast diminishing landfill for 72 per cent of London's waste.'

Meanwhile this was much more substantive fare (in part –I think the comparison with jute is unsound on a reuse basis), especially as I had read this story before, namely that where once a single container was going out with plastics, now 7 are going out with paper which, by my estimation is a single use alternative, though it can be recycled, though there is a question on ‘efficiencies’ and hence enviROI):

'You cite Ireland's ban on plastic bags approvingly, but you have made no report of the environmental disaster that their tax has inflicted on that country. As a result of their "plastax", food retailers now prepackage all fruit, vegetables, bakery and deli products using seven to 20 times more weight of packaging than we do when using lightweight plastic bags. The vast majority of non-food retailers have switched to non-taxable paper carriers. To keep them hygienic and waterproof, these are mostly covered in polypropylene, another plastic. We have already signed up to the Kyoto protocol, but should this insane idea be promoted, then, without any shadow of doubt, the UK, and the other countries from which we import the alternatives, will dramatically increase the world's carbon-dioxide and methane emissions. Just to give you a simple example, one 20ft container holds 2 million lightweight supermarket check-out bags; the same 20ft container holds either 60,000 paper carriers, or 40,000 cotton carriers, or 30,000 jute carriers.'


‘The supermarkets prefer product that can be made from renewable sources ie. Pet now RPET, recycled PET (This is most plastic bottles). There is more information from Packaging News on PLA if you go to there web site and look under PLA about two weeks ago.’

‘The supermarkets are quite clever in their spin on this situation, the general public are thinking that the bags are bio-degradable, when in fact, they are oxo-degradable and won't break down completely, this ultimately means that the plastic can enter the food chain through micro-organisms consuming the bits of plastic that are left, the organisms are then digested by animals, which in turn enter the food chain.’ ‘The oxo-degradable bags in use by supermarkets are just plastic with additives designed to break the plastic down, surely, this is a horrendous thing to do, to use up the oil derivative to make this product and then design it to break down instead of reusing / recycling it, now that is a waste of natural resources !’

‘Tesco also say that their bags will break down creating carbon dioxide'

The Authorities (from Government down.. er sideways?)

‘Text below taken from The Telegraph : Anything that rots also releases greenhouse gases – either CO2 or, more problematically, methane. Landfill sites produce an awful lot of these gases, so much, in fact, that there’s a European law restricting the amount of biodegradable waste they can take. This means they don’t actually want more material that rots.’

‘As you correctly indicate, the UK is sorely lacking in the facilities for recycling of these (and most other plastics).’

‘Evaluation of different types of shopping bags would require a systematic appraisal of environmental impacts in manufacture and likely disposal route; costs and consumer behaviour...I believe the Environment Agency is conducting an LCA study in this area.’

From the Indy Letters page (link below): ‘Your leading article (14 November) concerning plastic shopping bags is right to focus on the Government's total lack of will to address the subject. Importing billions of these items from China, adding of course to that nation's dire environmental degradation, as well as to our own through dumping into scarce landfill sites, is an absurdity. More importantly, it illustrates the impotency of government in facing up to the great environmental challenges society is faced with. That action should instead have to come from the grass-roots level speaks volumes about the abdication of leadership.’

The Media

Well this blog links to other threads of various relevance and maturity (in age terms, though...:).

The most recent series was kicked off by articles in such as the Indy and Guardian and BBC, in turn kicked off by the London Assembly getting involved. So we have gone from little towns to big cities with, I believe, the Isle of Wight gunning for a ‘zone’ status if only to stand out for a brief while as a ‘greener than thou’. As discussed before , the appeal might wear off when everyone has done it as the differentiating factor has gone. Which is when the media moves on to its next task.

Us. The Consumer.

‘We’ are part of this, and not innocents. But by heavens I feel that, bearing in mind the weight of responsibility thrust upon the poor public/consumer, we are least to blame for the position we find ourselves in, and are forever being thrust into by the failings of others.

There seem, to me, to be few facilities, and despite the bazillions blown already on communications campaigns, no one has a clue what to do even if they knew where they could do it.

‘May I refer you to WRAP which is conducting research in this area and has recently published an interesting report on consumer attitudes to biopackaging and plastics recycling - downloadable from their website. According to the report, relatively few consumers have an inclination/capability/time to compost: "whilst people do not necessarily question whether or not materials will actually break down, they seem less comfortable with the idea of them breaking down in their own back garden and would rather have them collected by the council and processed elsewhere (perception of it being "manufactured waste"?). Research indicated that most consumers will treat biodegradable plastic in the same way they would any other plastic, but in which a minority with access to such facilities would at least consider a composting option."

Solutions? Conclusions? Where to go next?

‘Relative to fossil fuel-based thermoplastics, biodegradable packaging may have limited properties (e.g. barrier to moisture and oxygen) which can adversely affect shelf life or pack strength leading to increased food waste. Our current main focus should be to increase recycling/recovery of plastics derived from fossil fuels because fossil fuels will be the main basis for plastics due to the volumes required and fossil fuels are a finite (increasingly valuable) resource. The new biodegradable plastics need to establish niche roles, a clear utility and obvious post-use routes. They should not be seen as an alternative to the majority of other plastic products. In conclusion, the overall energy consumption of the food supply and waste management system, of which packaging forms an integral part, is to a large extent (but not totally) reflected by the carbon footprint and effort is needed to maximise the efficiency of energy use, utilise more renewable energy and renewable materials resource where appropriate.’

‘The best solution at the moment is incineration with scrubbers on the emissions stacks. It means oil reserves are used twice, less going to landfill, plastic has high calorific value so can produce lots of energy for us (which we are short of) and with technology available today the emissions being put out would be cleaner than the air being taken in.’

‘Landfill breaks down most materials with a resultant release of methane (or Carbon Dioxide) - both Green house gasses. My advice would be to stay with the 'conventional' plastics and recommend recycling of the materials. Far better for the environment. By the way with the greater use expected of 'Biodegradables' ( that includes compostable, the use of the land to grow the crops necessary along with the requirement for land to produce biofuels will result in higher prices for the basic materials. It's not a win win situation!’

As for me, I think that would be ideal is a single, national standard that all need to adhere to. Fat chance there, then.

At least if we did , then we could either have a mandate that everything is the same, which means that it could get reused in the same way or degraded/composted in the same way, or it could be recycled in the same way.

I’m erring on the bio route (so long as the greenhouse gasses are addressed, either by not happening or being captured) as ‘we the people' don’t seem to cooperate - so if it is all ending up in a ‘bin’, depending on which one its either all nicely segregated and can go to the right place, and if not it’s ending up in a landfill where it does its funky thing as designed.

At least the beauty of a blog is that this can be an evolving piece, courtesy of the comments section. If you have something to add, correct or otherwise contribute, please do. I do no intend for this to be like some blogs/forums where people can end up knocking spots of each other, so be warned I can and will moderate if things go beyond the factual and verifiable.

There is of course opportunity to exchange, but what I will do is evolve the piece if necessary with addenda should some new info become available.

I just hope it might prove of some use to any who read it, and I thank those who made it possible. As most have requested (for various professional reasons) not to be attributed by name, I will respect that, but be assured that I have been impressed with the spread of ‘industries’ and the calibre of person who contributed. What was interesting was the number of ‘off message’ insights I was provided.

Other Links:

Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association

Google page

ADDENDUM 1 - My cover to the contributors:

I have now collated and posted my piece, which ended up a lot more than I intended. But I did learn a lot, and if and when challenged feel there is now much I can call upon to have a more considered view on the options, the lack of them... and what might be for the best. Were it that I felt the rest of the population had this opportunity, and not just on a matter of such vital impact as... plastic bags.

I say this as the next, critical IPCC report unfurls, whose serious messages are already to me a tad tarnished by irony-free planeloads of reporters (also booked to Bali once Valencia is sorted - if you are going to talk up how bad the weather is going to be, do it from a nice venue) vying to blame everything bar their own career demands on man-made climate change.

Of course, domestic waste is important as part of what the individual can do. Sadly, what seems to me the greatest need is coherent coordination and standardisation nationally, but that remains a rather distant prospect.

Which is amazing, given the number of folk in theory addressing this issue (and others 'green-hued'), and the amounts of money they have at their disposal, not to mention having blown already. I await being accosted by the next 'composting advisor' or 'Planet ban-it' advocate with some anticipation.

I hope I have done justice to your contributions, and have remained factually sound. And where there is opinion I trust it does not differ too much from your own. Of course there is always the comment section of corrections/rebuttals which, if valid, I'll happily include/make.


Indy - Shoppers back charges for plastic bags - It all rather depends on what was aksed. And what they know. And what they say. And what they do.

And, having just come back from a weekend stroll round town, I have to ponder just what the 'cost' of 'banning' plastic bags here would be vs. requiring all the shops to close their doors. I cannot imagine how much heat was being pumped out, up and away by serried ranks of gaping doors. I think I could handle having to open a door; how about you?

Times - Ban the bag

Times - How green is your bag?- Next target: bottled water. Carefull what you wish for, luvvies.

The Economist - The bag-man cometh

Newsnight - actually a link to my blogpost to a piece they have done on this, more to point you at the feedback of an Irish consumer
- an 'anti' campaign site

inventorspot - a good (well, it tries not to take sides, which is more than most!) review from a US perspective. Worth a gander.

Indy - China's billions of shoppers face ban on plastic bags - just so long as the alternatives are better. - Bag ban bill ‘ill thought out and unworkable’- It is a wise precuation, but sorry reflection, that one does need to very much look at the provenance of where these things are printed and/or who is quoted (including 'major media' with narrow agendas of their own, I might add). But there are several factual aspects that very much stand out as needing to be confirmed and/or raised in this debate, especially on an enviROI basis. I also thought the comments section was interesting, and quite moving, on the human cost. Of course there will be consequences of this nature when certain 'harmful' items are eventually removed from sale/use, but with a rather extreme 'Planet Ban-it' culture at play, this does mean that the full consequences are need also be fully and accurately identified first.

From - Taking the wrap - Not about plastic bags per se, but relevant to the debate

Observer - Plastic bags fashioned into eco clothes - Hey, a reuse solut... well, mitigation, if in very small measure.

Observer- Getting a handle on the plastic problem


Daily Mail - Banish The Bags: The Mail launches a campaign to clean up the country ... and the planet -

While there are undoubtedly serious environmental issues (major ecologically to wildlife; not quite so sure how significant in terms of carbon in a probably man-worsened climate change sense vs. a few other things, mind) here, and all pretty much negative, before hurtling off an another knee-jerk, distracting (takes the pressure of oodles of more pressing issues... possibly?) Planet Ban-It it might be worth asking a few more questions first.

First up, I simply wonder how these things end up where they do. Yes, the supermarkets provide the things and are highly complicit in the less than virtuous route they take, but I'd say in this regard it is more those who are in the disposal chain who need looking at. Consumers/public who just throw them in the air? Councils and waste disposers who do not keep them where they can do no more harm?

Then there is the matter of alternatives. This really is often not as simple as portrayed. From endless bags for life to recyclables that aren't, to compostables that can't... at least not with many current systems. Why do I feel our Dear Leader PM will emerge soon from his bunker to offer another flag wave for such a critical issue such as this, with so little else to concern himself about, including on the environment.

I'm not saying that plastic bags don’t look like a very good target to address in reducing our consumer impact on the planet, I just question how high up the totem it is in importance to warrant all such activity, along with the sincerity of many of those involved - especially when you look at how good their past records are, how 'necessary' much they themselves actually do is, and what it imposes upon the planet (I presume the Daily Mail will be doing no more freebies in plastic bags then. But interesting that this major issue has gone mainstream. The Indy and Guardian must be thrilled) is vs. what they say... or advocate (guessing the 4x4 & holiday ads, fashion supplement trips to Tokyo, etc, won't be off the menu any too soon). Me, I get my news online. All that paper... all those carbon consequences in delivery. Perhaps yet another profession’s jobs on the line soon? ‘Careful what you wish for’ springs to mind. ‘First they came for...’ also occurs.

But it's good to be informed. To make objective choices. Just so long as we have all the facts... and get our priorities right.

From this blog - rose-tinted-reporting

From this blog - Careful what you wish for

Newsnight - Getting rid of plastic shopping bags - is it a no-brainer? Funny that use of brains gets mentioned.

From this blog - Right result? Right reasons?

Newsnight - Where do you stand on the Plastic Bag Debate?

Just watched it, rather painfully, on the PC. Bearing in mind a lot of BBC news around this has been rather superficial, I found this refreshingly better than expected. Kirtsy Wark was certainly taking no prisoners. And she did not give Mike Barry, Head of M&S CSR, an easy ride. I doubt they were worried much; M&S was onscreen or being talked about for some 30 minutes. Poor Tesco and their 'bring in a reuse bag and get clubcard points got almost none, when their system is already in place, costs the consumer nothing (in fact it pays them) AND results in fewer bags directly from the loop. Odd.

A few fun stats: 13B/year, 216 pp/year (let's call it 200, eh?)

Anyway, green is the new black... or Brown. But the government and Dear Leader did not do well, from any corner. Maybe he should have shut up... for even longer.

As one third of a discussion triumverate hosted by Ms. Wark, One Rod Liddle weighed in, citing without much argument the none too attractive traits in all this of political expediency and, worse, impotence. He also trotted out a few other notions, some agreed with and some I am sure not, from the whiff of opportunism to spite and narcisism, representing little more than the antics of modern day McCarthyites, and resulting in no more than a drop in the ocean.

It was suprising how fellow panellists George Monbiot and Jutin Rowlatt (of Ethical Man fame) often agreed. They were on baord with the ban pretty much, but seemed less keen on all those who were trying to ride its coat-tails, especially as diversionary tactics from bigger e-issues. And in this, few who may have hoped to dodge a bullet came out well.

PRW - Marks & Spencer to charge 5 pence for carrier bags

From this blog - now-i-am-worried - As predicted. I think maybe we should call our system of governance more 'national followship'

PRW - Industry should unite over plastic bags, says Pafa - Good luck with that guys. You'll need it.

Daily Mail - Despite the Daily Mail's poll, Tesco signals it may defy the PM's call to crack down on throwaway carrier bags

You know, speaking as a consumer, getting points for reducing bag usage by bringing back old ones seems quite attractive. And motivating. Can't speak for what turtles think, but paying 5p to take away new ones (and dispose of how?) doesn't seem to help the stated problem too much in comparison. Have the science and research into consumer behaviour been thought through, or is this just a media bandwagon being jumped in collusion with a single retailer's PR department? Plus, of course, our national lead... er... follower, now rushing to join in, which means it is even more suspect for sincerity and actual enviROI wisdom.

Telegraph - Plastic bag tax 'would increase waste' - A new post, but of an oldish piece: Nov 07. It has been a roller-coaster ride, and such has been the strength of pro-ban media I was coming round to do questioning why I was ever questioning this. But we are talking WRAP here, and a fairly definite statement that outlines my primary concern: the enviROI. No question that bags suck in the way they are created and (mis-)used, which is really no excuse to keep them other than in reuse form, but it does also cover my key concern that the first line of attack should be a more coherent policy to deal with those that do require disposal most effectively. Peversely, and playing Devil's Advocate, that would tend to suggest that it would end up normalising their use, thereby making it less likely that better 'alternatives' would be found. So yet agin we find oursleves on the horns of the dilemma that so many exteme green bans seem to neglect, namely the bigger picture of recognising who 'we' as a all pervasive, consumer-driven, cash-rich, time-poor, bascially selfish race are, and in seeking mitigations maybe the lesser of some evils need to be identified, prioritised... and accepted.

I don't know what's best yet, hence my desire to find out more from the dwindling sources of objective information that might be prepared to offer any views now (is it worth the opprobrium of doing so? I can see no real value to me or even suggesting it's worth asking), so rather suspect this is one to concede and let pass.

But I do wonder what other possible enviROI+ sacrifices may be required at the altar of 'green correctness', getting next get hunted down in bans that actually serve no planetary benefit and even make things worse by being divise and distracting from bigger, more substantive culprits.

Talking Retail - Waitrose boss sceptical on plastic bag levy plans - 'The plastic bag debate has become “a very emotive issue with most commentators unencumbered by the facts”

Telegraph - Why do we all hate plastic bags? - Not sure the headline works, but a pithy take on the issue. Certainly better than the Daily Mail's rabble rousing. Whatever came of that?

The Register - Bag tax recycled into eco-PR slush - Interesting take. Some counter views.

PRW - Recycling “trumps” biodegradables - Bear in mind the source, but a view

Times - Oi, shoppers – that’s my petrol - It was but a matter of time before Jeremy Clarkson weighed in

Indy - Ghanaian fashion accessory is plastic fantastic - A small, but welcome reuse story that is more positive than most

Grist - Garbage, Man - A US view. Not really that helpful, mind. I guess they are as stuffed as we are.

WRAP - Carrier Bag Statement - In February 2007 [the date of release arriving being March 27], 21 of the UK's leading high street and grocery retailers reached an agreement with the UK Governments to reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags by 25 % by the end of 2008. WRAP agreed to take the initiative forward, bringing retailers and government together, collecting data and monitoring progress. And I will also bring things together, collect data and monitor progress, too. May I have my million now, please?:)

Times - Shoppers say no to plastic bag levy to tackle climate change - now there's a thing. And what a smart bunch of consumers (and kinda what we have been saying all along)! I wonder what the likes of Daily Mail, M&S & our PM will think on this? Or whether they care any more and have moved on. If it's unpopular, I rather suspect the government may be quietly dropping this one.

Times - J Sainsbury attacks Alistair Darling's plastic bag plan - There's life in the old bag issue yet

MRW - Government breaks bag promise, says retailer - Well, did they or not?

It is a sad, sorry metaphor for the age, that even clear facts can get lost in hype, spin, obfuscation and... moving on.

I watched this, and as a viewer came away with no clear idea as to who had said, done or agreed what.

So it all got lost in 'so what'.

Which plays entriely into the hands of those with a vested interst in looking like doing a lot, when in fact nothing sensible by our current is being doen at all.

No wonder trust is low between all stakeholders.

Guardian - 'Sustainable' bio-plastic can damage the environment - Now, there's thing. Who'd have thought it? - Some in the media seem to want it all ways

Times - Five Myths About Plastic Bags - Mind you, one person's Myth is another's... (and from my first glance, at least two are not myths at all; she just doesn't agree with the take on the facts)

Telegraph (tx to Dave of Solarventi) - Degradable is not my bag - Ahead of my time, I guess. When did I first post on this? Anyway, moving on...

Perhaps the best thing now is to campaign to get a coordinated national system in place so that consumers can easily redirect the waste they accrue which cannot be avoided. I wonder how many plastic bags stack up vs. one salad tray or even smoothie bottle?

And as much as this is from supermarkets, then going back via them seems to make sense, in complement with genuine enviROI+ (ie; non EU target pleasing, box-ticking efforts) joined-up initiatives via LAs and central government.

What are the odds?

Telegraph - M&S 'breaking' 5p bag charge pledge

Plastics News - Responding to criticism - a pro and con set of views from the USA

TIME - The Patron Saint of Plastic Bags - More for fun, but there are some links (another form Dave of Solarventi, ta)

Telegraph - Customers face having to pay for plastic bags - stick... please now meet carrot.

Indy - Supermarkets banish the plastic bag

Packaging News - The search for another way to shop

Indy - Billions fewer plastic bags handed out - Not sure the Anya Hindmarch multi-$ 'designer' showpiece visual sends out the best message to those of us not currently swanning round Harvey Nichs for the day. But the reduction is welcome and 'we' do seem to be coping. Mind you, I now seem to have more free hemp efforts than we need. I guess they can be stored until the others peg out. Or donated.

Not sure the WRAP guy's reply helps much. mind: So which bag is the least harmful? "A very difficult question to answer," replied Richard Swannell, Wrap's director of retail programmes.

Maybe I should send him this blog list?

Indy - The Big Question: What more can Britain do to beat its addiction to plastic bags? -

My Zero Waste - Can a polythene product ever be classed as environmentally friendly? - A new aspect, with luck informed by more expert input, unfolds... Though I did stick my head over the parapet with a few questions on aspects of concern. With luck to be answered, and not my head shot off!!!

Guardian - Plastic bag obsession is carrier for environmental ignorance - Now, who is saying that? And there's a certain irony in me quoting him claiming plastic bags are distracting from other, more pressing issues. So I refrained form writing in. That'll not show him!

Guardian - War on plastic bags is a waste of time - Don't shoot the messenger:) Frankly, I can't say I agree with that headline, at least as written, which makes me greener than George... no mean feat. The rest, pretty much on the button, as I look out at the Wye meandering by.

Which? - The issue lumbers on, and in its July '09 magazine edition Which? takes a new look - 'The, good the bag and the ugly' - complemented by this more generic online feature.
Nothing too new to be honest, involving 'tests' based on corporate claims vs. actual staff delivery. Sadly, it can take the action of just one to rather spoil the record of many. And there are rather bigger fish to fry, really. In passing, I note Waitrose doing 'well', but at the moment (June '09) they are running a TV commercial in which almost every product they sell is featured rolling by, seemingly all in layers of plastic. Some hardly necessary from what I could see, and all featured in a glinting montage at the end that I would have thought had the CSR guys screaming at the marketing bods as soon as they saw it.

Times - Tesco hides figures after missing target to reduce plastic bag usage - Just a few comments, too. Maybe they should turn to delivery:)

Guardian - Do we really need to ban plastic bags? - The irony of me posting (and you reading) this post is not lost.

keetsa - NEW - HOW NOT TO BUY A REUSABLE BAG - A nice piece to add here... with nifty reuse ideas as well!

It's also worth checking out the COMPOSTING Category, too as there is cross-over.


Thriftyfun - Reuse Plastic Grocery Bags - NEW - A bit more +ve, and the do have (re)uses:)


Dave said...

Wow! Well done! I think you've got enough here for the skeleton of a PhD thesis!

I hope someone picks it up as the basis of a detailed analysis covering all of the factors, however complex and interrelated. It could give us all the answers to all of the questions asked, whilst ignoring the obvious spin and obfuscation that is put in from some quarters.

Peter said...


It ended up a bit more 'comprehensive' than I had intended, but the science interested me. with luck some key 'chunks' can get lifted if and when required.

All the more because most of these factors/issues seem to either be unknown, glossed over or ignored by too many key protagonists.

Sadly my faith in the authorities and the media in serving up rational green-related initiatives and news has taken a further knock.

Not a great situation when there are some importnat things out there that I am now almost raising my eyebrow at by default, simply because of its provenance chain.

I almost feel like dumping that statement in most BBC/Guardian 'Have Your Says'! Knowing them their immidiate, irony-bypass reply would be that I am wrong... and must change to their way.

colin said...

well, tons here to go at. I have one over-riding question to anyone who makes an eco claim about their product, 'Tell me exactly which eco-problem your product helps to solve, and then demonstrate with an eco-audit that it does so do' This excludes the majority of claims. There is no eco advantage in biodegradable plastic bags, see the report in the news section in the Smile PLastics website on biodegradables for a summary. The position of the plastics recycler is often overlooked and most biodegradable plastics are poison to the plastics recycling industry. In the states there is now a moratorium on the introduction of PLA bottles, I think they should be banned !!!!

They should be clearly differentiated from biopolymers, i.e. those that come from a renewable resource such as farmed micro-organisms.

Peter said...

Welcome Colin; it's good to have another persepective, and this time from the point of view of the recycling industry.

What you outline is just one of the many aspects of this 'debate' that has been almost totally ignored by the politicians and media, namely the alternatives that exist and their actual enviROI in comparison.

Biodegradables/compostables are often very high on the agenda once folk accept that a instant blanket ban might not quite work out, and paper is not that great either. I must say I often wondered what Somerfield made of my Morrisons returnees, and vice versa, as they are very different materials!

The ideal of course would be that people separate diligently to return appropriately, but the odds of the Great British public getting their heads round that - even if the systems were in place to help them - is remote!

Especially with the authorities we have to coordinate it all. This just in as a PR from WRAP:

WRAP, the packaging and waste advisory body, said today a tax or levy on throwaway bags could help play a significant role in changing consumer behaviour by giving a major incentive to re-use bags for shopping.

You may view the full text of this press release here

They do allude to a bigger picture, but all I see here is them jumping on the Daily Mail/M&S charging notion mainly.

Cloe_F said...

Not the most informative of posts, sorry, but it made me laugh...

This from Andy Parson on last nights Mock the Week (7/8/08, about 15mins in):

"Apparently plastic bags are evil .. because they take 100 years to biodegrade. This came as a shock to me 'cos often when you get a bag in the supermarket they seem to biodegrade when you put anything heavy in it...."

Peter said...

It's Friday... you're allowed.

But actually...

My first nudge to consider the issue came a few years back when I went to a cupboard to retrieve some stuff in some Somerfield bags. All there was was some white flakes. Which set me to wondering where the rest went.

My personal favourites are Morrisons. They are thicker so you don't need to double bag, and serve all sorts of functions.

I also used to recycle the few excesses (which you can't with a bio-d), but these days have to risk the tut-tut in the queue when I grab a few and pop 'em in my hemp jobby.


Peter that's a fantastic resource that you've pulled together there. I first came across the Oxo-degradable\degradable bags during a conversation with a polythene bag manufacturer\recycler last year who alerted me to the fact that these types of bags cannot be recycled and are destined for landfill\incineration only. With supermarkets moving to these types of bags and offering bag recycling facilities instore, it can only lead to more confusion on the the part of the consumer, which is why such a post like this is so important. Thank you for your hard work putting it together. I know how long these things take. :-)

Peter said...

Ta, AMA - glad it was of, as it is always being updated:)

I was going to share it on another blogger's site where this issue is being discussed, but was worried about looking like I was pointing at mine! Bit of a dilemma when you're keen to share info!

So it was an opportunity to upgrade the thread with a topical addition, and bring it to the blog home page again.

I was just intrigued that George M had weighed in in such a negative way, where the opportunity still exists to simply get folk to think these things through.

It's not easy, but I really see there is a valuable middle way between 'planet ban-its' and 'green is good no matter whatters'.

One that might actually make things better for our kids' futures, too.


I too was intrigued by George Monbiot's stance and as a pretty normal middle earth kind of gal (hmm - that doesn't sound that normal does it) I was disappointed to see his guns ablazing approach. I know bags are bags and they are just the icing on the cake compared to tackling the stodginess that lies below, but once a consumer starts tucking in who knows what other commitments they'll make. I'm definitely in favour of good intentions whatever they are.... and I've definitely decided I'm also in favour of cake :-D