Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and Drink

Not so fantastic plastic

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I’ll always remember a Sunday "picnic" a friend and I had in northern Thailand. From a street vendor, we’d bought some barbecued chicken and packets of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and tied with cotton twine. Then we sat ourselves down on the prickly, dry grass of a small park to enjoy our little feast and watch the last glow of sunset filter through mango trees and bushy shrubs.

The park was jam-packed with Thai families doing pretty much the same thing we were in the relative cool of early evening – talking and laughing while they munched on goodies purchased from street vendors or carried from home.

My friend and I were taking in all this when it suddenly struck us that what we thought were huge pink blossoms in the shrubs surrounding the park were really translucent pink plastic bags. Once that registered, we realized the entire park was awash in pink plastic bags, hundreds of them.

A few sticking out of the tops of overfilled garbage cans looked like deflated balloons or oversized condoms. But most of them were free from any such caretaking efforts.

Pink plastic bags rolled across the lawn like tumbleweeds in the gentle evening breeze. Pink plastic bags had wrapped themselves around park bench legs. Soggy pink plastic bags were marooned in the small pond amongst lotus leaves.

In some surreal way they were beautiful, the pink catching and amplifying the rosy twilight. But the thought of all those bags, and millions more, blowing around the Thai countryside was also pretty depressing.

Where the heck had they all come from?

As consumerism rose and the use of traditional carry-alls, or lack thereof, fell away as it had in the rest of Asia, small, translucent, pink plastic bags – about a quarter the size of the ones we use in Canada for groceries – had become the convenient carry-all choice. They enabled people to tote everything from fresh fish or candies from the markets, to packets of sticky rice from street vendors.

In some parts of southeast Asia, you could even get iced drinks from street vendors in small plastic bags, complete with a plastic straw sticking out. (The colour predominance of the bags varies locally in southeast Asia; in some areas pale blue or yellow is king.)

According to the grassroots organization, ReuseableBags.com, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year. That works out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter. That park in Thailand contributes an ample start.

The plastic all these bags are made of is, of course, water-resistant and not biodegradable. That’s why so many of us love to line our household garbage cans with them: Away from sunlight, they are virtually indestructible, preventing the messy spills our parents and grandparents endured as they carried the household garbage in brown paper bags out to the trash bins. Before that, people used buckets, commonly called slop pails, that they simply washed out as needed. Burnables went in the wood stove.

When it comes to carrying goods or disposing of garbage, the issue of whether to plastic or not to plastic is a complex one. But either way, it remains a fact that the same impermeable, non-biodegradable qualities that make plastic bags desirable also can render them harmful in the environment.

The Canadian Plastics Industry Association points out that, when measured by weight, plastic bags comprise less than one percent of landfills. Still, about half of all the bags used in Canada – or about 5 to 7.5 billion of the total 10 to 15 billion used each year – end up at the dump, carefully wrapped around household garbage like mummification bandages.

And despite efforts to recycle the bags, which can result in useful products ranging from "plastic" lumber to park benches, many of them simply end up as litter.

Since plastic bags photodegrade, that is, break down in sunlight, those that are not buried or recycled – the lion’s share, particularly in developing countries like Thailand – break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits, contaminating soil and waterways. They even enter the food web when animals accidentally ingest them.

ReuseableBags.com notes that windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up to harvest bags and use them to weave hats and more bags. According to the BBC, one group harvests 30,000 per month.

Plastic bags, once rare in extreme polar latitudes, are now frequently spotted. As well, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food.

And while some might argue that paper for bags also has its drawbacks, at least it comes from a renewable resource, unlike the soon-to-be-depleted hydrocarbons, which us folk on spaceship Earth ain’t gittin’ no mo’ of for makin’ plastic bags or any other bright ideas we come up with.

Depending on which source you use, 2006 marks either the 40th or 28th anniversary of plastic bags coming into ubiquitous use. As the Canadian Plastics Industry Association’s website puts it, plastic shopping bags revolutionized how people shop for food and essentials. It is hard to think of a world without them.

Indeed. But we British Columbians may soon be contemplating just that and I say, yes.

In September, at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, civic leaders will vote on whether to approve a plastax on plastic bags used in retail stores.

The amount is still to be determined. But the concept, which is being spearheaded by the District of North Vancouver, is modeled after Ireland’s plastax.

Established in 2002, the Irish plastax hits consumers with about 15 cents for every plastic bag used at the checkout stand. Singlehandedly, it has accounted for a 90-95 per cent drop in the use of plastic bags in Ireland, taking about 1 billion bags a year out of the environment. And, double bonus, the plastax, which totalled about $9.6 million in the first year of implementation, goes into a green fund to be used for environmental initiatives.

If you like the sounds of this proposal, let your civic leaders know. If you dig out that funky old cotton shopping bag at the bottom of your closet, you can use it to carry your letters down to muni hall and bring home your groceries on the way back.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who keeps a motley collection of bags in the trunk of her car.