When you stop and think about it, the humble plastic bag is a remarkable triumph of technology. It costs a couple of cents to make, holds a thousand times its own weight, is waterproof, surprisingly durable, and 100 per cent recyclable. After carrying your groceries home, it might hold feijoas off the tree, your togs and towel, dirty rugby boots, and then end its life as a bin liner.
Having grown up with a ready supply of these miraculous freebies, I have mixed feelings about their imminent demise. Even if the Government doesn’t follow through on its proposed ban, the supermarkets will phase them out by the end of this year.
The big question is what will replace them. It’s counterintuitive, but plastic bags are far more energy efficient than any of the other options. Paper’s out – it causes seven times more global warming than a plastic bag reused as a bin liner. A cotton bag would have to be used 327 times to break even with plastic, and trendy “organic” cloth bags are hopelessly inefficient.
Bjorn Lomberg has noted:
Plastic bags best for the environment:
You must reuse a regular cotton bag 7,100 times to make it better for the environment
Organic cotton bag needs 20,000 reuses
Paper needs 43 reuses
— Bjorn Lomborg (@BjornLomborg) March 15, 2018
If you’re a twice-weekly shopper, you’d have to remember to bring your reusable bag on every single trip for three years straight. If you slip up a single time and buy a new one, or break or throw one away, you’re doing more harm than good.
The supermarket chains can’t believe their luck. The overseas experience suggests they’re about to receive a massive boost in the sale of bin liners, which they essentially gave away for free all these years, and come out of the whole thing looking like heroes, despite potentially making global warming worse.
Yep we’ll now pay for them.
There’s a flaw in our psychology called “moral licensing”, which makes us less inclined to behave virtuously after we’ve already done some token good deed. This is how someone can pilot a two-tonne SUV from their massive home filled with stuff, emerge from the supermarket with an eco-bag full of packaging, shrink-wrapped slabs of miserable animal flesh, and plastic junk “collectables”, and still see themselves as someone who cares about the environment. After all, they’ve done their bit.
The truth is that eating one less meat dish a week would make vastly more of a difference. So would biking or walking to the supermarket. So would stepping off the hamster wheel of consumerism. So would donating money to offset carbon emissions, or to cleaning up the ocean. These are the hard things, and no-one wants to do them.
Banning plastic bags is fiddling while Rome burns. It’s not important to make a difference, as long as you look like you’re making a difference; preferably with a limited edition hemp tote that has a cute picture of a seal on it and only cost $2.
Giving the remarkable plastic bag the respect it deserves is as simple as reducing, reusing, and being a tidy Kiwi. If you want to be truly virtuous, a meaningful lifestyle change is required.