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But bag-free benefits far from clear, Bugle discovers

March 16, 2008: Bookham is the latest target in a local campaign to banish plastic bags from shops. The campaign's leader is Zen George, a director of the Leatherhead & District Chamber of Commerce. She wants to persuade local traders and shoppers not to use plastic carrier bags which damage the environment.

George is the latest advocate of the campaign started by BBC film-maker Rebecca Hosking in Modbury, South Devon, in 2006. Modburybecame Britain’s first carrier bag free town in May 2007. Others have followed. The Daily Mail has led a strong anti-bag campaign and, where the Daily Mail leads, the prime minister and his chancellor, Alistair Darling must follow. In his first budget on March 12 the chancellor told shopkeepers they have a year to cull the carrier before he brings in legislation to make them charge for the bags.

But local campaigns have already taken hold even here in Mole Valley. To date, George says on the local Green Mole Forum website, she has had a great response from the residents of Ashtead and Leatherhead and wants to know what Bookham residents think about the project.

The Green Mole Forum websitesays George has spoken to manufacturers of reusable cotton and of cornstarch bags. Cornstarch bags "[are] completely compostable and she is sure the vast majority of you would like to help minimise their impact on the environment. With the support of local residents (consumers), she hopes they can achieve their goal of making Ashtead, Leatherhead, Fetcham and Bookham a carrier bag free zone."

George, who edits the Ashtead & Leatherhead Local magazine, welcomes reactions either to her email address, leatherheadlocal@btinternet.com, or by phone on 01372 376420.

George's campaign has been welcomed by a passionate endorsement on the Ashtead Residents' Association website. Quoting extensively from the Mail on Sunday, the site notes that the campaign has reached Ireland, China, Bangladesh (where bags had blocked flood drainage systems) and Taiwan: "Waitrose tried a two week plastic bag free trial in Saffron Walden in 2007 and was given overwhelming support by 90 per cent of its clients. Within the next year San Francisco will become the first American city to operate a complete ban.

"In this country," continues the site, "we use 17 billion plastic bags a year… Each one of these takes over 500 years to photodegrade whilst slowly leaching toxic chemicals into our ground water and waterways. This is then ingested by farm animals that form part of the food chain, not to mention those marine animals that slowly choke to death when they mistake plastic bags for food.

"Surely," the site concludes, "if China, Taiwan, Ireland and San Francisco can achieve this goal, lowly little Leatherhead, Ashtead, Bookham and Fetcham can do the same and follow Modbury's lead."

COMMENT

Rightly, there is a rising tide of local support for the campaign to banish the plastic bag. The Bugle supports the campaign and hopes passionately that Bookham's shoppers and shopkeepers take it to heart, but not because it will much difference to climate change. It won't.

It might even make things worse. There is a distinct risk that any success in banishing carriers will be a distraction, giving lazy politicians and ne'er-do-well officials an excuse to tick the 'environment' box without doing any of the simple but potentially unpopular things that will make a difference.

The production, use and disposal of all plastics, not just shopping bags, is a complicated issue. It also covers the food packaging round the products that we put in the bags and to the allegedly 'green' alternatives to both bags and packaging. So complicated, in fact, that they tie even respected national commentators in knots.

Let's start with production. According to Charles Arthur writing in The Guardian newspaper , the bags are "made from naphtha, a byproduct of oil refining for which no other use has been found. If nobody makes plastic bags any more, it'll get burnt off - generating more carbon dioxide. Well done, Gordon [Brown], and Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail! You've boosted climate change!"

Arthur has got this completely wrong. Local chartered chemical engineer Derek Smith BSc, CEng, MIChemE, did refinery work with Burmah Castrol (now part of BP), and worked at ICI's Teesside petrochemicals business. A keen green, he is a founding member of the new Green Mole Forum and gives climate change talks under the name Mole Valley Climate Change Awareness.

Naphtha, a product of oil refining, has two big uses, says Smith: "It is either converted to petrol… or is [broken] into lighter components including ethylene and propylene – the building blocks to make plastics and a range of other petrochemicals" – not just plastic bags.

"No-one in their right mind would simply 'burn off' such a valuable material," says Smith.

What's the alternative to plastic bags?
The real problem with getting rid of the normal 'permanent' bags, however, arises from the non-permanent alternatives on offer. One alternative is the reusable bag – the one you take with you to the supermarket made of either thicker plastic or cotton. The cotton industry isn't totally environmentally friendly, but it's by far better for the environment or more practical than the remaining alternatives.

One of these is the recyclable bag, which can be reclaimed, ground up and used again in other plastic products. The benefit is to use the recycled plastic instead of more oil. Another is bags made of a group of materials that can't be recycled but change their characteristics over time. These are 'compostable', 'biodegradable', 'photo-degrade' or 'degradable'.

Photodegrade plastics shrink when acted on by light. But they stay as plastics.

Degradable plastics covers other material that breaks up over time, eventually forming tiny pieces which stay as plastics and add nothing to the soil. They are a pollutant.

That leaves us with 'compostable' and 'biodegradable' plastics. As George points out, compostable alternatives to polymers are made from corn starch, though they can also come from potatoes or other crops. These compete for space with food crops, just as biofuels do. But at least they are reusable and decompose to a toxin-free humus.

Biodegradable bags degrade when acted on by bacteria or fungi. If the conditions aren't perfect they will take years to degrade. Even when they do, they may leave toxins behind.

Risks from mixing different plastics

Both compostable and biodegradable materials carry risks. The Bugle spoke to Richard Jones, managing director of Nelson Packaging in Lancashire.

Nelson makes 250 million plastic shopping bags every year for Dixons and other chains. Jones says this is two per cent of total UK consumption, which he puts at 12 billion bags a year. It's still too many but it''s somewhat fewer than the number claimed in the above quote from the Daily Mail.

Jones says Tesco and other retailers have abandoned the use of biodegradable bags because EU legislation says the bags must be recyclable but they can't be recycled with other plastic bags. "Biodegradability," says Jones, "is not the answer."

David Tyson, chief executive of the Packaging and Industrial Film Association (PIFA) explains. He tells the Bugle that the oil-based polymers the packaging industry has used until now can be cleaned and re-used.

But if you mix those polymers with the new generation of 'bio-films' and 'degradable', 'biodegradable' or 'compostable' plastics in a recycling facility, says Tyson, "there's a limit to what you can use that recycled material for."

For example, if compostable or biodegradable plastic gets into the plastic used to make damp-proof courses in buildings, the damp courses will develop holes at those points.

So if degradable plastics of any kind gets into household waste, the local council or whoever collects the waste has to introduce strictly controlled processes for separating the non-permanent from the permanent bags. That will cost money.

Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) is in no doubt. She told the Bugle that, though there is a proliferation of oil, non-oil and hybrid packaging available, it's better for the environment not to complicate the waste stream any further. "It's difficult enough," said Bickerstaffe, "to get people to segregate simple waste as it is."

What do you think?
The Bugle's support for the campaign is based solely on plastic's unsightliness, the danger it poses to wildlife, and the cost of clearing it up.

But we also have to accept that introducing non-standard plastics into bags carries dangers. One is that the producers of plastic bags and other products will wash their hands of all recycled plastic and stick to products made from oil. At least they know what it is and where it came from. With recycled plastics, they can't be sure.

Another risk is that, once plastic carrier bags disappear from the high street, consumers will congratulate themselves on a job well done and think they've saved the planet. If we want to rid the world of litter there are dozens of things we can all do to before we get rid of the bags.

One is to reduce our children's consumption of snack foods and the waste its packaging causes. Most of the plastic waste you encounter on a walk from Bookham village to Effingham, for example, is not carrier bags but water bottles, and sweet and crisp wrappers. All plastic products – good and bad, take huge amounts of energy to produce. That, says Smith, is because steam cracking is a high temperature process that uses a lot of heat – and that's the link with global warming.

Visible though they are, plastic bags account for a tiny fraction of the plastic waste we buy and throw away. Banishing plastic bags is good but it's not enough.

We could also discourage the sale of toy helium baloons. This is not just because if you let one go it has to come down somewhere. No matter how deep you go into Ranmore Common or elsewhere on the North Downs these days, it doesn't take long before you see a brightly coloured balloon glinting from a tree.

It's because we're running short of helium, whose main use, it turns out, is in MRI medical scanners .

If Councillors and officials were serious about global heating they would drive emissions down by, for example, enforcing speed limits, or cracking down on shopkeepers who waste energy by leaving their doors open all year round. Large shopping chains like heated open doorways because they think it encourages people into their shops. The campaign against open doors is is growing too and may even be the next big push after the war on carriers.

Even that issue, however, is is not straightforward. The Red Cross charity shop in Dorking, for example, keeps the doors open to give easier access to the disabled. As Incpen's Jane Bickerstaffe puts it, as soon as you get one environmental benefit, "another issue pops up somewhere else."

More detail on the different types of plastics here.

What do you think? Tell the editor.

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