Bagging the bag

Last month Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the British Government intended to compel supermarkets to charge customers for plastic bags. The Australian Government has threatened to take the attack on plastic bags even further. Late last year the new Australian Labor Government pledged to phase out plastic bag usage altogether. However, they have been unclear on how this might be achieved. Media reports that the Australian Government will introduce a levy of up to $1- per plastic bag have been rejected by the Australian Federal Environment minister Peter Garrett. Nevertheless the Australian Government remains committed to phasing out plastic bags.

      It might seem that, as the visible face of pollution, the plastic bag would win few friends, but late last week The Times reported that scientists and environmentalists, including an expert advisor to Greenpeace, have stood up to defend the plastic bag. It seems that a large part of the case against the plastic bag is based on faulty science. A widely-cited 2002 report to the Australian Government by Nolan-ITU in association with the RMIT Centre for Design and Eunomia Research and Consulting Ltd attributed the death of over 100,000 marine animals per year to plastic bags.

      Unfortunately, the 2002 report came up with this figure by misreading a 1987 Canadian study of the effect of discarded nets, rather than plastic bags, on marine animals. The 2002 report was amended in 2006, to correct this ‘typo’, according to a report in The Australian on the weekend, but by then the claim that large numbers of marine animals were killed by plastic bags had been circulated widely. David Laist the author of a well known 1997 study on the subject has also stepped in to defend the plastic bag. According to him, most marine deaths that result from waste produce are a result of entanglement but ‘Plastic bags don’t figure in entanglement’. The main culprits are ‘fishing gear, ropes, lines and strapping bands’.

      Lord Taverne the chairman of Sense about Science has attacked the British Government for making decisions on the basis of poor science. In his words: “This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions which are counterproductive.” He goes on to comment that “Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn’t achieve anything”. Opponents of plastic bag use might counter Lord Taverne’s reasoning by arguing that making people feel good is a worthy end in itself. They might further argue, inter alia, that even if the case against plastic bag use is not as strong as it might have appeared, the act of taking their own bags to the supermarket is an important ‘consciousness raising’ activity that makes people more aware of their role in managing the environment.

      The opponents of plastic bag use would be right to argue, contra Lord Taverne, that phasing out plastic bags does achieve something. Nevertheless the sentiment behind Lord Taverne’s comments seems to me to be well placed. People should have an accurate sense of what they are doing for the environment. If they come to believe falsely that they are making a significant difference to the state of the environment, when they are actually making a much less significant difference, then they may feel that they have ‘done their bit’ and may well be less motivated to make a difference in other ways. It is also a bad idea for governments to be making policy decisions that are directed at tackling the public appearance of a problem rather that attacking the problem itself. It is much easier for governments to scapegoat air travel and plastic bags at the supermarket – the visible face of environmental damage – than it is to tackle underlying environmental problems; this may involve significant changes to our lifestyles and substantial government expenditure. But mere cosmetic measures will do little to help us and our environment in the long term.

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