Green plastic

I am not in the habit of kicking a man when he’s down.  I always follow my mother’s advice that a double tap from a nine millimetre takes far less energy and you don’t risk scuffing your Jimmy Choos.  (But assuming that some nice airport TSA official had confiscated that pretty little Beretta PX4 9mm along with your hair-conditioner and under-arm spray, my mother recommended that a quick stamp to the eye with a Jimmy Choo stiletto may work just as well AND you can always get them re-tipped afterwards.)  So when my friend who knits her own sandals and recycles her bathroom tissue called back to say “thank you” for going green and helping save the planet, I didn’t really have the heart to tell her that my efforts involved lots of steaks, as I am sure I heard that she crochets her own meat out of soybeans.  Especially as her concern for the planet had set me off thinking about what I could do to help and I was positive that she would not like me for saying that from now on, I would be using plastic grocery bags in preference to paper.

I can remember a few years ago standing in line to checkout my groceries at a fairly good supermarket in California.  As my goods were being scanned, a young assistant walked over to bag my purchases for me and automatically said “paper or plastic?”  The answer should have been really obvious  as my purchases included a fair mix of frozen and tinned food together with freshly sprayed vegetables (the better stores in California spray a fine mist of water over their vegetables to stop them drying out.)  I didn’t want to explain the tensile strength of wet paper bags and the anatomical contortions I need to go through in order to carry handle-less paper sacks from my car, or explain that my frozen goods and fresh veg would soak the bag that would then tear open and result in me having to chase dropped and rolling groceries across a parking lot or end up crawling under the large SUVs and minivans to extract bruised fruit and dented tins.  So because the answer was fairly obvious and I didn’t want to insult the girl’s intelligence, I thought I would make a joke.  “Is it paper or plastic that kills dolphins?” I asked with a smile.  “The plastic ones,” was the immediate and rather earnest response.

There are whole list of things that you shouldn’t say in public and there are a whole lot of words that have become taboo. Well, it appears that there is a whole lexicon of things that you cannot say to the nice young lady who has just asked you if you wanted a plastic or paper shopping bag even though it was patently clear that the answer would be plastic.  The ‘save the whale’ and ‘Greenpeace’ stickers on her uniform should have given it way.  So in hindsight, replying “Plastic then, because that kills dolphins and I hate them” was not the best thing to say.  From the look she gave me, you would have sworn that I had just suggested that I was going to sell her grandmother into white slavery and said that her mother was a girl with professional virtues.  I really remembered that look as I unpacked the damaged tins, crushed boxes, split tomatoes and leaking bottles from the plastic bags when I got home.

But, seriously. Much to the disappointment of my friend who knits her own toilet paper and the girl at the cashiers in California, it could be that the much maligned and hated humble plastic shopping bag may be a better option if you care for the environment.  For a start, think about where paper bags come from and how you make them.  Yes, the answer is trees, but you cannot go into the forest and pick ready made bags from the Safeway tree.  Most paper is made from pulpwood, from the bits of trees left over from timber production, approxiametly 28% of all tree use in the US.  But to make pulp, you still have to cut down a tree and whilst it may be replaced by new saplings, you cannot tell me that a couple of twigs in the ground are going to absorb the 10lbs of CO2 that a mature tree absorbs each year. Oh, and half of the dry weight of a tree is carbon, just waiting to oxidise and get into the atmosphere.   But when it comes to the pulping process…. This is where the fun stuff starts

The majority of wood pulp (93% in the UK) is made by literally cooking the wood in various chemicals, including caustic soda and sulphates, and then bleaching it with chlorine  in a process that  is both highly water and energy hungry, in fact it takes almost 400% more energy to make a paper bag than a plastic one and you don’t use water in plastic film production.  There are also numerous studies into the environmental deficits caused by pulp mills and the US EPA has cited that pulp mills are one of the biggest producers of air pollution.  It’s no good shouting ‘recycled’ either:  it takes 91% less energy to recycle a plastic bag and don’t forget that at a pulp mill it is necessary to remove the ink from your waste paper, producing volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. A report by Health Canada from 2007 states that 47 pulping mills released over a million tonnes of chlorinated organic compounds into the aquatic environment in one year.   On top of all this, it’s been estimated that you require seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags as one truck full of plastic bags.  It is also estimated that paper forms over half of the volume of landfills, yet plastics less than one tenth.

I know that plastic is made from oil and gas, and yes I know that oil is not renewable, unlike trees.  But only two percent of output is used to make plastic films from which your shopping bag is produced.  But like paper, plastics can also be recycled and again and this is becoming more common, according to US industry sources, there was a 24% increase in plastic bags recovered in 2006 over 2005. But I am not going into the merits or demerits of oil exploration, production and pollution here: there is too much, from warfare, global politico- economics, deep sea drilling and the occasional accidents that have environmentalists in a spin for years.  I am well aware that plastic bags never degrade and have been found all over the globe, from the Arctic to Antarctica.  But that is the fault of humans for littering.

I started this piece by saying that I am not going to kick a man when he is down and I am not.  I am not going to tell my bathroom tissue recycling friend that I prefer plastic bags at the grocery because in a couple of weeks I think that my friend will be very pleased that I will have stopped using bags at the grocery full stop.  But not out of choice, it will be because I will have stopped using grocery shops.  All my cupboards are now so full of ‘bags for life’ that I haven’t any room left for food.


About cryptothinker

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