Environment Monday, November 10, 2003. Post by Drog
An article in National Geographic several months ago discussed this same issue. Plastic bags are so useful and cheap to produce that they have captured 80 percent of the grocery and convenience store market since they were introduced 25 years ago. “The numbers are absolutely staggering,” said Vincent Cobb, an entrepreneur in Chicago, Illinois, who recently launched the Web site reusablebags.com to educate the public about what he terms the “true costs” associated with the spread of “free” bags. According to Cobb’s calculations, between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. Around one to three percent of those bags (i.e. millions) end up in the litter stream outside of landfills.
It’s hard to say what the life expectancy of plastic bags are. According to some studies, it takes months to hundreds of years for plastic bags to breakdown. But a study carried out for the Irish supermarket chain Musgraves concluded that they last for a million years (I make no claim as to the accuracy of that study though). And as they decompose, tiny toxic bits seep into soils, lakes, rivers and the oceans.
As big a problem as plastic bags (and other plastic products) are, the solution may be surprisingly simple. Taxes. Using cost accounting principles, it is easy to see that what we pay for products is often not what they really cost. Plastic packaging is cheap because it dumps the cost of disposal on municipalities. So if we determine what the true costs of plastic are, and dump those costs on the manufacturers in the form of taxes, as the Green Party of Ontario, Canada recommended (they didn’t win a single seat in the last provincial election, by the way), it stands to reason that manufacturers won’t be so keen to continue using plastic where other materials would do. And taxing plastic has already been shown to work, even if it’s the consumers that are taxed. Tony Lowes, director of Friends of the Irish Environment in County Cork, said the 15 cent (about 20 cents U.S.) tax on plastic bags introduced there in March 2002 has resulted in a 95 percent reduction in their use. “It’s been an extraordinary success,” he said. According to Lowes, just about everyone in Ireland carries around a reusable bag and the plastic bags that once blighted the verdant Irish countryside are now merely an occasional eyesore.
Previously on SciScoop: « The Sound of Sunday SciScoop Shorts
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