Plastic Bags Are The Past

Plastic bags are a staple in all forms of trade the world over. It's easy to see why - they're durable, water-resistent, handy and convenient. If only they were biodegradable, they would be perfect. But they're not. 

Still, looking at what's happening with national policies on plastic bags these days can clue you in to how far the world has come in being conscious of this non-degradable nature of plastic bags and their resulting impacts on the environment, and in particular, the world's oceans.

Take Nigeria; an average Nigerian finds plastic bags ubiquitous and convenient, and does not consciously think about them as being detrimental to the environment. Actually, they subconsciously believe it's their right as consumers to have everything wrapped up in a plastic bag. I was standing in line to buy a coke at the movies one day, and when the server didn't provide the couple in front of me with a plastic bag to go with their drink, they literally freaked out until she rushed to get it. This applies to me as well - I stopped by a pharmacy to buy a pack of paracetamol. It was only after I had left that it occurred to me that I should have rejected the plastic bag and simply put the paracetamol in my handbag. 

Interestingly, I was more conscious about my use of plastic bags when I was in the UK. I actually had two tote bags I would carry with me to the supermarket almost every time! Why? Because I had to pay extra for each plastic bag I accepted. It was a tiny fee to be sure, but still, it made me remember my totes. And guess what? I felt better about it too, like I was actively doing something good for the environment. 

But let's break it down - why are plastic bags bad for the environment? It's essentially because of two reasons. Firstly, they are made from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) plastic which is not biodegradable. This means that the plastic can remain in the environment for up to 1,000 years! The second reason is the way we use and dispose of these plastic bags. Indiscriminately. We get new bags every day we shop for something and then promptly throw them away. A lot of these are thrown on the streets and gutters (e.g. in countries like Nigeria with weak waste management practices) and end up blocking drainages which then lead to urban flooding - even worldwide, 32% of plastic waste products are never collected at all. A lot more find their way to the oceans, pollute these waters and harm sea animals. It's said that 9 million tons of plastic make it to the world's oceans every year! In fact, at the rate we're going, by 2050, there would be more plastic than fish in the sea! Moreover, as plastics are made from petroleum, factoring in the carbon emissions from extraction and processing means increased risks of climate change effects.

A charge on plastic bags may sound strange to Nigerians, but I was quite surprised at the number of countries that are implementing a policy of bans or charges on plastic bag usage. I've already spoken about a country, the UK, that has recognised these harmful effects of plastic bags and are trying to reduce their use through effecting a policy of tax/fees on each plastic bag used. 

From my research, I found 39 countries that have put some form of ban or charge on the use of plastic bags, though with varying success of enforcement. Surprisingly, Africa leads the pack with 15 countries (28% of African countries) having such a policy. Next up is Europe with 9 countries (18% of European countries), followed closely by Asia with 8 countries (16% of Asian countries) and North America with 3 countries (13% of North American countries). Then comes South America with 2 countries (17% of South American countries) and Australia & Oceania with 2 countries (14% of countries in Australia & Oceania).

We probably see this much policies in African countries because the negative effects of these plastic bags are especially glaring, given the general lack of adequate infrastructure for waste management. These African countries are South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia, Botswana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mauritania, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon, Malawi, and Mauritius. Now, even though these countries have these policies in place, I can't say how much enforcement goes on. For example, I don't remember having to pay any extra charges for plastic bags in South Africa. 

These trends, especially in Africa, show that governments are recognising the dangers of HDPE plastic bags and effecting policies to reduce its use. But these ban/charge policies also have a negative effect on the income of workers in this $4 billion industry (protests due to unemployment in the plastic industry after such a ban was effected was probably one of the reasons Taiwan had to reverse theirs)! Besides, what do we do about the non-biodegradable plastic bags we already have on our lands and our oceans? 

But these policies also bring opportunities - entrepreneurs now have a chance to think creatively and innovate to come up with suitable replacements (different from paper bags cause these have impacts on deforestation and excess water use during production) for plastic bags. Having a mindset of zero waste and recycling waste as promoted by the Circular Economy concept is also a good way go, and can be championed by plastic manufacturers. 

If we can tackle the use and disposal of plastic bags on these three fronts - policy, consumer usage and waste recycling by plastic manufacturers, we will be well on our way towards reducing and perhaps reversing the 500 billion - 1 trillion plastic bags used and thrown away globally, every year!