The plastic carrier bag is a hidden household hero, reused for everything from packing lunches to walking the dog, and pretty handy for carrying shopping too. At least that’s according to Incpen, a UK based group of companies whose common interest is packaging and sustainability. They claim that 80% of carrier bags are reused, and that they account for only a tiny percentage of landfill and litter.
However, there’s a growing backlash against the humble carrier bag and politicians in Catalunya are debating the issue. So what’s all the fuss about? Well, first of all, it is claimed that about 60 million barrels of oil are needed to make the estimated 1 trillion bags that are used around the world each year. In Catalunya, of the 14 million bags used per annum, only 10% end up in the yellow containers and about 62% are reused as rubbish bags. Reused or not, 98% of them end up in landfill and millions more litter the countryside. For Neil Verlander of Friends of the Earth, they are “symbolic of our throwaway society”. Scientists fear that each bag will take between 400 and 1000 years to disappear completely; not bad for something that the average shopper uses for less than 20 minutes and then throws away.
The effects of plastic bags on marine life have been widely reported. Millions of seabirds and animals die every year because of plastic or other waste, and coral reefs can be killed off if plastic bags sink to the sea bed and starve the coral of light. According to Greenpeace, The Mediterranean suffers more pollution from discarded plastics than any other sea, due to the fact that it is enclosed, surrounded by industrialised countries and has high levels of tourism and commercial traffic. A study of the endangered loggerhead turtle in Spanish Mediterranean waters found that 75 per cent of them had swallowed plastic bags. Speaking to The Indepedent in 2007, Greenpeace’s campaigns director, Mario Rodriguez said “It’s clear we are drowning in a sea of plastics.”
The use of plastic bags is now a hot issue with policy makers and Spanish and local government are currently deciding what to do. Many look to the example the Republic of Ireland set, way back in 2002, when they introduced a charge of €0.15 for each plastic shopping bag used, which led to a staggering and rapid 90% drop in their use. Before the tax, shoppers were using an average of 328 bags a year, compared to just 21 afterwards. China and South Africa have both made it illegal for shops to give out plastic bags for free and the U.S. city of San Francisco has banned them completely. In the U.K., Gordon Brown has yet to pass a law about the use of bags, in the hope that retailers will voluntarily make changes themselves. It seems to be working, slowly. Marks & Spencer and several others now charge for bags, and Tesco, who have large, sturdy canvas bags for sale for less than a pound, offer ‘Green Clubcard points’ (which amounts to money off future shopping) when bags are reused.
So what about Spain, a land where, on the surface, the ubiquitous plastic bag doesn’t seem quite so prevalent, thanks to the trusty ‘carrito’? An item strictly reserved for OAPs in the U.K., here there is no shame in bringing out the bag on wheels, maiming fellow pedestrians and wheeling your shopping along behind you. However, according to figures, the average Catalan family still manages to get through 5.6 bags per week, and Spain is the number 1 producer and third greatest consumer of single use plastic bags in Europe.
National and local government are making moves in the right direction, although more needs to be done. Earlier this year, the Environment Minister sent out a draft of his ‘National Waste Plan’, in which the government’s plans to reduce the consumption of plastic bags by half in 2009, and ban the use of non-biodegradable bags by 2010 are set out. Locally, the Consell Comarcal de l’Alt Empordà, in collaboration with local markets, have initiated a campaign aimed at reminding shoppers not to leave home without their reusable bags.
Anna Peña of Fundació Catalana per a la Prevenció de Residus i Consum Responsable would like to see the Irish model used here, and they are lobbying for a tax of 20 cents per bag to be introduced in shops in the New Year. The only two supermarket chains that currently charge for single use bags in Spain are Día and Lidl, although Al Campo have introduced stronger biodegradable bags which they sell for 39 cents. The foundation celebrated the first ‘Día Sin Bolsas de Plástico en Cataluña’ in July, which aimed to raise awareness among the general public about what they can do to help. However, Anna stresses that to succeed, all parties need to take responsibility if we are to slow climate change and reduce waste. Yes, shoppers can help by remembering to take cotton bags, baskets, or trollies to the supermarkets, but retailers and local government also need to take action. She encourages customers to reject excessive packaging in shops and to help to lobby the local government by signing the petition for a ‘plastic bag free Catalunya’ at http://www.residusiconsum.org/catlliurebosses/manifest/index.html.
Published in The Resident Magazine (Costa Brava) – Winter 2008