Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and Drink

Not so fantastic plastic

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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.