An Interesting Take on Plastic Bag Use

More than 70 per cent of plastics in the oceans comes from the fishing industry - report.

More than 70 per cent of plastics in the oceans comes from the fishing industry - report.

“If we really want to make a meaningful impact on ocean plastics coming from land, we should focus on the biggest polluters such as China, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam, and emphasize the most effective ways to cut the plastic load, namely better waste management in the developing world.”

So writes BjØrn Lomborg in today’s Globe and Mail newspaper. The headline of his opinion piece is titled Sorry, banning plastic bags won’t save our planet. It’s an interesting perspective, and one I’ve read in several articles during the last week. Our problem with plastics in the oceans is getting a lot of press these days (yay!), especially after recent developments with China refusing our recycling. I even got into a bit of a heated debate with somebody about the topic on the weekend. A woman who struck up conversation with me proceeded to refuse the information I offered up (I cited one of these articles, that much of the plastic litter in our oceans was coming from under-developed countries).

“Well, how is it ending up in OUR oceans, then?” she demanded.

I had to take a deep breath before I spoke. “Currents.”

The positive of this was that it’s a topic of conversation with strangers. And that’s a good thing.

Lomborg pointed out in his piece that we, as a society, need to be honest about how much consumers can achieve. While more than 20 countries have taken “the showy action” of banning plastic bags, it won’t make much of a difference, he wrote. “…Plastic bags make up less than 0.8 per cent of the mass of plastic currently afloat on the world’s oceans.”

While rich countries such as Canada attempt to save the oceans with such bans, we need to instead shift our focus to tackling the inferior waste management and poor environmental policies in developing regions. Astonishingly, less than five per cent of land-based plastic waste going into the ocean comes from OECD countries, he said. Half of the plastic garbage comes from China, Indonesia, Philippines, and Vietnam.

There’s more: Lomborg (who is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre) quotes a 2018 study by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food where it found that you must reuse an organic cotton shopping bag 20,000 times before it will have less climate damage than a plastic bag. The study also shows that a regular plastic shopping bag, reused as a trash bag, has the smallest impact on the environment than any of the choices (including paper bags which need to be reused 43 times before being better for the environment).

Also – and this is important – most of the plastics floating in the oceans, more than 70 per cent, come from fisheries. Most of that junk are buoys and lines. So, we need to look at the fishing industry world-wide, too.

While I don’t think anybody’s pretending that reducing plastic bag use is going to save the planet, I will still continue to eschew plastics whenever I can. It’s just one step in an incredibly long journey but at least it is in the right direction. Importantly, it creates awareness. Strangers talk about it. We get angry and scared about it. There’s nothing wrong with doing something about it. Collectively, it will make a difference. Even if it’s just a baby step towards making a difference.