Yangtze River flows through China into the Yellow Sea, October 2017. (Reddit)

B.C. VIEWS: Plastic garbage in, garbage out

Why bag bans may actually make things worse

I’m still getting responses to a January column about plastic bags, with some readers insisting that a ban on point-of-sale bags at retail locations is urgently needed here in B.C.

This is unfortunately typical of environmental discussions these days. With attention-seeking politicians and media tugging at our heart-strings, our urbanizing population is led astray.

Some rejected my argument that a retail plastic bag ban will have little effect, other than weakening the viability of municipal recycling systems. In response, I have been referring people to a German study that was released in February.

It finds that of the massive influx of discarded plastic into the world’s oceans, 90 per cent comes from 10 rivers. Two of those rivers are in Africa and the rest are in Asia.

For the record, they are the Yangtze, Yellow, Hai, Pearl, Amur, Mekong, Indus and Ganges in Asia, and the Niger and Nile in Africa. The Indus alone deposits more plastic than the 47 other rivers in the global survey, combined. And the Yangtze is several times worse, carrying up to 1.5 million metric tonnes of plastic debris and micro-plastic into the Yellow Sea each year.

Clearly these huge watershed areas don’t have any plastic recycling programs to worry about, and trash of all kinds is washed into rivers. This is why North American and European rivers aren’t on the list.

As was noted at the GLOBE Forum on sustainable business in Vancouver in January, a kilogram of recycled plastic is worth more than a kilogram of steel. Of course you need an organized, technological society with a competent education system to convey this knowledge and act on it. We have that now, but it is a fragile thing in the so-called “information age,” with teachers joining others in swallowing the latest feel-good message.

The rivers study was widely reported, with TV networks using a currently handy bit of file video showing a scuba diver surrounded by plastic junk floating by. Intent on making the issue relevant to North American audiences, most didn’t mention that the video was taken off the coast of Indonesia.

The Danish government did another study, a life cycle assessment of production, use and disposal of shopping bags available in supermarkets in the fall of 2017. Using 16 parameters including greenhouse gas emissions, it compared a plastic bag, used once for groceries, once to line a wastebasket, then incinerated, with the alternatives.

The results: you must use a regular cotton bag 7,100 times to make it better for the environment. “Organic” cotton performs much worse, requiring 20,000 uses. Paper bags need to be reused 47 times to match the performance of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) that is commonly used for grocery bags, squeeze bottles, toys and so forth.

Indeed, LDPE is chosen because it is low-impact to produce and recycles well. Governments that are serious about taking action to get plastic out of the environment can require manufacturers and distributors to collect and recycle it, rather than forcing consumers to change their habits in a way that gives the illusion of progress but actually makes things worse.

Micro-plastics in waterways get attention as well, although there isn’t clear evidence that this is devastating marine life as some shrieking headlines suggest. One major source of micro-plastic fibres is washing modern clothing such as fleece jackets and (brace yourself) yoga pants.

Once again, German ingenuity assists. Outdoor gear retailers there brainstormed over beers and came up with the Guppy Friend, a mesh laundry bag that catches fibres in the washing machine.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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