On 30 March 2011 a first meeting to attempt to ban plastic bags from South Africa was held at the Two Oceansâ€™ Aquarium in Cape Town. ‘The plastic bag we want banned is the checkout bag at supermarkets. Cashiers just hand them to you and ask: would you like a bag?â€ says Haly McLellan, senior bird trainer at the Aquarium and initiator of the Ban the bag campaign. ‘My ideal is that legislation in government will help to shape human behaviour. This is not a â€˜smear the bag campaignâ€™, this is thinking compassionately about the environment.â€
McLellan has decided it is time to ban plastic bags from the Western Cape, to start with, because she feels ‘it is contributing to the death of the planetâ€ and that someone should be willing to do something about it. She showed the audience at the meeting some shocking footage of how plastic is polluting our environment and destroying our marine and bird life. One of these videos was an explanation of the plastic problem by Charles Moore and the other was footage of a whale dying after ingesting plastic bags (see below):
According to Dr Sue Kinsey, Marine Conservation Societyâ€™s former litter policy officer, 60% of debris found on beaches contains plastic. More than 200 marine organisms are affected by plastic bags through strangulation, suffocation and blocked guts, among others. At a beach clean-up she attended in Hawaii, several Albatrosses were found dead surrounded by pieces of plastic that were in their guts. On one weekend they found over 7000 bags on the beach. ‘Plastic bags in the ocean are mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles and they choke to death. Plastic bags make up only 2% of what is found on beaches, but it still has a substantial effect.â€
A million plastic bags used per minute
A significant increase in plastic usage is seen over the last 40 years. ‘If we donâ€™t do something soon weâ€™ll be swamped in our own rubbish. We live in a â€˜throwaway cultureâ€™, but what people donâ€™t realise is there is no â€˜awayâ€™,â€ McLellan says. Our landfills are becoming endangered. Cape Town’s landfill is expected to be saturated within the next 15 to 30 years. The global consumption of plastic bags is about 500 billion to one trillion per year. Even though South Africa saw a reduction in the amount of plastic bags used when levies were enforced, the usage has increased rapidly again. We have even obtained an international reputation as having plastic bags as our ‘national flower’.
Plastic bags can last up to 1000 years in a landfill site. ‘Sometimes animals ingest the bags, it kills them, they decompose and the bag doesnâ€™t and it keeps on killing.â€ Most of the plastic ends up in the ocean gyres (big high pressure currents) and remains there for years, as Captain Charles Moore discovered in the Pacific Ocean in 1997: ‘Here I was in the middle of the ocean and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic,â€ he said. Learn more here.
Trying to eliminate plastic bags from our everyday use is only the tip of the iceberg. ‘On its own it canâ€™t solve the problem, but itâ€™s a step in the right direction,â€ says Kinsey. Her hometown of Modbury, England, has recently successfully banned the bag. Modbury has seen a 90% reduction in the usage of plastic bags. ‘We have been brainwashed into the convenience of not having to bring something with us. The plastic industry should support a more responsible use of plastic,â€ she adds. Bangladesh banned plastic bags in 2002 already with a rapid following from other countries. The latest successful ban the bag campaign was launched in Italy this year.
Fossil fuel by-products
‘Plastic bags mainly consist of petroleum and natural gas. Most South African bags are made from coal. Polyethylene takes hundreds of years to break down,â€ McLellan says.
Which alternatives should be used? From a pre-production angle, paper and material bags are not necessarily better for the environment. It takes a lot of energy and pollution to produce them. Biodegradable bags are not good for the environment either. They simple don’t biodegrade fast enough adn if they donâ€™t receive enough oxygen (like ending up in water) they donâ€™t biodegrade at all. Carrier bags made from starch was also considered, but it would lead to food prices going up. Approximately 4841 people were employed on a full-time basis in the plastic recycling industry during 2009. Another 34 500 jobs were sustained by the collection industry at that time.
The meeting found that plastic bags do serve a purpose, but they are handed out too easily.Itâ€™s the people who use plastic that should take responsibility. Tom McLaughlin, Sustainability Manager of Woolworths, believes plastic bags wonâ€™t be stopped in South Africa. ‘We should try to bring up the price. R5 a bag will make some people think twice about getting one.â€
Where did the money go?
John Kieser, from the Plastic Federation of South Africa, suggested looking into the Buyisa-e-bag campaign. Buyisa-e-bag was started as a Section 21 company by the South African government in 2006. Its aim is to encourage reducing plastic carrier bag litter across the country. ‘We should hold the government accountable for what they promised with Buyisa-e-bag. About 4 cents of every 40 cents spent on a plastic bag goes to the government to be used for recycling purposes. We havenâ€™t seen that money being used,â€Kieser said.
Green Times suggests the opposite approach of the carrot rather than the stick. Instead of charging for the bags, the shops offer them for free. But now shoppers who donâ€™t take a bag will be rewarded with special food coupons or a discount to their bill. This way the cost of the bag is already included in the price of the food â€“ as was always the case. Shoppers always paid for the bag anyway, but there were no incentives to reject the bag. Incentivise rather than penalise might make rejecting bags much more popular â€“ and can save us all money.
If you have any suggestions or comments on our plastic bag problem, please contact me here or Haly McLellan here.
By Willemien Calitz