Sunday, 30 December 2007

Plastic bags on its way out? Global data says 'no'

Plastic bags on its way out? Global data says 'no'
28 Dec, 2007, 0025 hrs IST, TNN

Plastic bags are less of a problem than people think. In EU and Australia in volume terms, they are "less than one per cent of the waste". Moreover, plastic bags only account for two per cent of the total 47.5m tonnes of plastic that are produced for use in the EU each year.

Global Viewpoint

Peter Woodall, who runs the communication campaigns for the UK Packaging and Films Association (PAFA) and the Carrier Bag Consortium (CBC), blames the "popular media" for continuing to call the product a disposable bag. And this is not just a UK phenomenon. A Decima research poll from April 2007 showed that close to 80 per cent of Canadians reused their bags twice or more and that 72 per cent would return their bags for recycling if the facilities were available. Around 50 per cent of the Canadian population currently has access to some sort of bag recycling program, according to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA).

Paper Bags in Comparison

Paper bags are even worse for the environment over the whole lifecycle of a bag, including the production of a bag in Asia, shipping it to the US or the EU for use, and then often shipping it back again to Asia for recycling. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper bags generate 70 per cent more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags, because four times as much energy is required to produce paper bags and 85 times as much energy is needed to recycle them.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Recover

It is important for people need to understand the full benefits of light plastic carriers from the cradle to the grave. The key is getting people to reduce, reuse, recycle and recover. The plastic bag has excellent credentials and it is extremely reusable, but people are not educated to reuse. Instead of adopting a knee-jerk reaction to the use of plastic bags, it is important to look at the facts and analyse them.


Biodegradable bags have a future, but only as niche market players. Another problem would be of diverting land traditionally used to grow food to growing raw material for bags, especially as the added demand on the land for biofuel is already increasing the prices of certain basic commodities.

In the EU, around 50,000 tonnes/year of biodegradable plastics are currently used, compared with 47.5bn tonnes/year of normal plastic, according to Plastics Europe. It is felt that a five per cent market share of around 2m tonnes/year could be a realistic target for bioplastics.

The future lies in an effort to reduce the energy and materials consumed in the making of plastic bags without sacrificing strength. Already it has been seen that plastic bags in circulation use 70 per cent less polymer than those produced 20 years ago.

Innovation is essential if the industry is to survive in developed countries. One-quarter of the plastic bags used in wealthy nations are already produced in Asia, according to Worldwatch, and imports into the US and the EU from Asia are rising.

The majority of plastic bags used in the EU are also imported from Asian countries, with only a small number of producers left in Europe, mainly in Spain, France, Turkey, and central and east Europe


It is 50 years since the first plastic bags for bread, sandwiches, fruits, and vegetables were introduced in the US, and there seems little chance that their days are numbered quite yet. But thicker, reusable bags and more biodegradable options seem set, at some stage, to replace the flimsier varieties we are more familiar with.

If plastic bag makers want to persuade governments not to take knee-jerk reactions based on half-truths, then there clearly needs to be more life-cycle analysis for plastic bags, allowing the real problems to be identified and addressed.

Plastic shopping bags are a valuable resource that can be reused and recycled over and over again. The plastic recycling industry is already a job-creating $2bn market in North America, growing at 14 per cent per year.

The plastic and chemical industries now need to sit down with environmentalists and policy makers to ensure it is this business that continues to grow — not the production of thin bags that are produced cheaply, but that are thrown away after a single use.

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