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Plastic bags fly into environmental storm

  • Story Highlights
  • New environmental campaigns seek to rid plastic bags from towns and cities
  • An estimated one trillion plastic bags are given away every year
  • Ongoing debate as to which bag is most environmentally friendly
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By Matthew Knight for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- If you saw a plastic bag floating on the wind it might stir up dreamy thoughts of the much-parodied scene from the 1999 film American Beauty. But as the bag flutters, swoops and then wraps itself around your face, any sense of inner peace would be quickly shattered, leaving you with the more rational thought that billowing plastic bags are a depressing blight on our urban and rural landscapes.

Another plastic bag takes flight - one of the 1 trillion used throughout the world every year.

In recent months, environmental campaigners have been focusing their ire on the once guiltless plastic bag, publicly declaring it the nemesis of all that is green and good. It has also become a powerful symbol of how neglectful and profligate modern society has become.

Campaigns to rid the streets of the supermarket bag are thriving. Only this week in the UK all 33 London boroughs gave their backing to a Parliamentary Bill which seeks to make law an outright ban on free throwaway plastic bags.

The move comes after Modbury, a small town in Devon, UK gained much publicity when it banned plastic bags back in May 2007. Cities far and wide are beginning to implement a ban. Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh banned plastic bags in 2002 and in March this year San Francisco followed suit. For the last five years, the Republic of Ireland has imposed a nationwide tax of 15 cents on all supermarket shopping bags and in 2008 the Australia government will start a similar program.

The plastic age

Plastics have only been around for about 150 years -- Alexander Parkes created the first man-made plastic in 1862. As they haven't been around that long no one can be sure how long they take to break down. But environmentalists, scientists and manufacturers generally agree that the process can take anything up to 1000 years.

Since their introduction to U.S. supermarkets in the late 1970's plastic bags have become a ubiquitous presence. They were a blessing for every shopkeeper in the world; being lighter, stronger and cheaper than the conventional paper bag. Their numbers spread rapidly and it is now estimated that the annual worldwide consumption of plastic bags is currently running at between 500 billion to one trillion.

The average plastic shopping bag is made from polyethylene -- a thermoplastic made from oil -- and rivals a cockroach for indestructibility.

They biodegrade very slowly. In fact, they photodegrade which means they over time break down into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers which eventually contaminate soils and waterways. As a consequence their microscopic particles can enter the food chain.

When plastic bags don't get dumped in landfill sites or incinerated, they often find their way into the sea via drains, rivers and sewage pipes. According to the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags have been found floating north of the Arctic Circle near Spitzbergen, and as far south as the Falkland Islands.

The Center for Marine Conservation based in Washington D.C. recently completed a five year study into ocean debris. Their National Marine Debris Monitoring Program recorded that plastic bags accounted for over 10 percent of the debris washed up on the U.S. coastline.

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The effect on wildlife can be catastrophic, with birds becoming terminally entangled and, according to a World Wildlife Fund report in 2005, they affect nearly 200 different species of sea life (including whales, dolphins, seals and turtles) which die after ingesting plastic bags which they mistake for food.

With the spotlight firmly fixed on environmental issues, supermarkets have been forced to reflect the concerns of their customers.

Bags made from recycled plastic are now commonplace, the 'bag for life' is a regular fixture at the check-out and shoppers are offered incentives to re-use their old bags.

Biodegradable cornstarch bags are also becoming more popular and the high street and the Internet are awash will 'eco-friendly' Hessian bags.

In April 2007, the limited edition, 'I'm NOT a plastic bag' bag, costing $10 was spotted dangling from the arms of Hollywood A-listers Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson. Designed by the 'queen of bagland' Anya Hindmarsh, the bags instantly sold out and it wasn't long before they were being snapped up on eBay for as much as $400. A strange world indeed.

Plastic fantastic

But not all plastic bags are evil apparently. New technologies developed by a UK-based company Symphony Environmental Technologies are, they say, making plastics far more eco-friendly.

The company manufacture a pro-degradant additive (called d2w) which, when added to polyethylene during production, transforms it into an oxo-biodegradable product. In most cases it takes these bags two years to break down, allowing even small fragments to be consumed by micro-organisms who are able to access the carbon and hydrogen.

Symphony Plastics have been supplying oxo-biodegradable plastic bags to Co-operative supermarkets in the UK for five years, and the UK's Periodical Publishers Association recommends that their members use their products.

CNN spoke to Chief Executive Michael Laurier who is frustrated by the current hysteria engulfing the debate about plastic bags. "The answer is not to ban plastic bags," he said. "When Ireland introduced a tax on plastics bags sales went down by 90 percent, but sales of plastic bin-liners went up by 400 percent."

Laurier also pointed out that cornstarch bags, far from being a worthy alternative to regular polyethylene, could in the long run be more harmful to the environment. "When starch bags are dumped in landfills they can go anaerobic producing methane [a powerful greenhouse gas]," he said.

The Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association also claim that some hydro-biodegradable [including cornstarch] plastics contain up to 50 percent synthetic plastic derived from oil.

There is, however, a potentially bigger environmental cost in the producing bags from cornstarch or palm oil. A report published this month by Greenpeace called "Cooking the Climate" has highlighted that the growing demand for palm oil is "driving the wholesale destruction of peat lands and rainforests in Indonesia". The land is thought to be one of the most valuable stores of carbon in the world. Burning this land is simply releasing tons of Co 2 into the atmosphere.

It remains to be seen what will be ferrying our groceries home in the years to come. What is beyond doubt though is that we could all start using fewer bags.

Peter Robinson, Director of Waste Watch, an environmental charity based in London UK told CNN: "First and foremost we must reduce the number of plastic bags we use. We would encourage the use of durable carrier bags which can be used again and again." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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