Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In Defense of the Plastic Bag

Now that even the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern ireland has spoken about abandoning the use of plastic bags, I feel someone on this blighted orb needs to defend the damned things!

Alexander Parkes

Plastic is one of the great inventions of the modern era. Early versions of plastic were formulated in the 1860s but it wasn't until the chemists really got to grips with the various fractions of crude oil that the industry took off. Most plastic is, I believe, derived from Naptha, a semi-gaseous liquid that would probably be flared in refineries if there was no use for it.

Plastic's properties are well known. Plastic is also relatively inexpensive as a raw material. Think of an entire plastic lawn chair (you know the sort) that retails for just a few dollars/pounds. Many items of every day use we take for granted would be much much more expensive if produced in alternative materials.

Which brings us to the amoeba of plastic product life - the remarkable plastic bag. Extremely cheap to make, the bag may be given away with groceries, helping the customer to tote the groceries home without breakage or spillage at no extra cost. Compared to brown paper sacks, the storage space and shipping costs for plastic bags are considerably less. And paper sacks don't like getting wet! Once used for its initial purpose, the plastic bag comes into its own as a utility product par none. Stored under the sink, the bags easily become small bin liners, allowing kitchen trash to be easily and cleanly disposed of. They are also invaluable in this day and age of the disposable diapir and 14 day garbage collection cycles. Plastic bags work well in the freezer as well, avoiding or at least delaying freezer burn.

And eventually the bags will find their way into the trash, whether holding other items or just being disposed of as surplus to requirements. At the landfill the bags take up very little space, requiring significantly less room than alternatives.

But it is here that the great "no no" rises into the debate like so much methane bubbling out of a foetid swamp. For plastic bags don't degrade fast enough and inevitably some bags never get into the landfill but blow around an otherwise pristine countryside. Plastic does eventually degrade even if it may take a few hundred years. If you need proof of this, think about how brittle some plastic becomes after a few years of use.

As to the litter problem, is this the fault of the plastic bag or is it a function of a breakdown in society? Since plastic doesn't have a brain it doesn't have a conscience, so a plastic bag cannot be blamed for messing up the countryside. No, it's people who cause such problems! Banning people would soon alleviate the problem of litter!

But there are plastic bags that biodegrade. These plastic bags are not necessarily made from the cheapest materials and so may be more expensive to make. But they offer an alternative and alternatives in society are usually for the best. Bravo for choice!

Everything you ever wanted to know about plastic