Polythene Pestilence

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 19 2014

Colman's Column3

Visiting Horton Plains, I got the strange feeling that I had been transported back to Ireland. The fog, the yellow furze blossoms, the red fuchsias, all brought back memories of rural County Cork. At Horton Plains, signs warn visitors that plastic bags can kill the deer that are one of the reasons for visiting the spot. This is no longer a problem in Ireland. Ireland has conquered the scourge of plastic bags.

In his book Ireland and the Irish, John Ardagh noted: “the Irish lack of any strong visual sense or concern with tidiness”. The Irish landscape is beautiful but it is marred by the intrusion of humanity.  Most Irish small towns are ugly and depressing. The Irish countryside is sparsely populated but despoiled by the phenomenon of “bungalowitis” – the economic boom led to many ugly houses being built. With the collapse of the economy, the country is littered with ghost housing developments.

The Irish do seem to have got something right with their policy on plastic bags. I would venture to say that Sri Lankans also lack a strong visual sense or concern with tidiness. People of my age and background were trained to be tidy. Dropping litter in the street would be anathema even if there were not fines to be imposed if you were caught. Ireland seemed to be improving somewhat. There is now less danger in Irish cities of getting stuck to the pavement with chewing gum than there is in London. There are now tidy village competitions in Ireland. In Sri Lanka, I notice children dropping litter on the ground without being reprimanded by their parents. Why are the schools not training them?

It is not just Sri Lanka that is plagued by plastic bags. An estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, 380 billion of those in the US. Each year in Singapore, some 2.5 billion plastic bags are used which means vast quantities of non-renewable resources such as crude oil and natural gas are consumed to produce them. According to an impact assessment by the European Commission, European citizens use, on average, 198 plastic bags per year. Of the 198 bags, 90 per cent are single-use lightweight plastic bags. An estimated three billion plastic bags were used daily across China, creating more than three million tons of garbage each year. China consumed an estimated five million tons (37 million barrels) of crude oil annually to produce plastics for packaging.

Large build-ups of plastic bags can clog drainage systems and contribute to flooding, as occurred in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998 and almost annually in Manila. Plastic bags constituted a significant portion of the floating marine debris in the waters around southern Chile, according to a study conducted between 2002 and 2005. If washed out to sea, plastic bags can be carried long distances by ocean currents, and can strangle marine animals. The inks and colorants used in some bags contain lead, a toxin. Once in the environment, it can take hundreds of years for plastic bags to breakdown. As they decompose, tiny toxic bits seep into soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans.

Sri Lankan retailers have a mania for packaging. One might buy a packet of biscuits, which has already been wrapped by the manufacturer. The shopkeeper will then wrap it in newspaper, put it in a brown paper bag and then put the lot into a plastic bag.

In my living memory, plastic bags didn’t exist. How did we manage without them? Today’s lightweight shopping bag, made of ethylene derived from natural gas and petroleum, only came into common use in the 1970s. Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin invented it and   Celloplast patented worldwide it in 1965.

Someone told me that plastic bags were here to stay in Sri Lanka because their production was a cottage industry providing livelihoods. Could livelihoods not arise from producing biodegradable packaging? I attended BCMIH to hear Ajahn Brahmavanso and was impressed with the efficient manner in which the event was organised. Seven thousand people were provided lunch in neat disposable cardboard boxes. Not a plastic bag in sight!

Rwanda has had many problems. If they can deal with the plastic problem, surely it is not beyond Sri Lanka? At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers’ suitcases. Throughout the country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones. The authorities encouraged companies that used to manufacture plastic bags to start recycling them instead by providing tax incentives. In 2008, Rwanda decided to ban plastic bags completely.

Ireland took a global lead on the plastic bags issue. I was somewhat disconcerted to be told on 4th March 2002 by an Irish retailer that I would have to pay 15 cents for a plastic bag. My first thought was that this was profiteering. I later learnt that this was a levy imposed by the Irish government to limit the use of plastic bags and encourage the use of re-usable bags. All levies are remitted into the Environment Fund to develop schemes to promote awareness of the need to protect the environment.

There was an immediate effect on consumer behaviour. Use of plastic bags plummeted from an estimated 328 bags per capita to 21 bags per capita overnight. Tony Lowes, director of Friends of the Irish Environment in County Cork, said the levy had “been an extraordinary success,” resulting in a 95% reduction in plastic bags. Local authorities carry out surveys to determine the extent, composition and causes of litter pollution in their areas. This information enables them to plan litter management. There have been positive changes in litter pollution levels throughout the country since 2002.

Ireland gave an example to the world. In a quarter of the globe, there are some restrictions on plastic bags. Bangladesh, South Africa, Thailand and three states and territories of Australia, ban them. The five-cent tax levied on plastic bags in Washington DC in 2010 brought a decrease in consumption from 22.5 million to three million bags in the first month alone. Italy began a total ban on January 1 2011.  Like Ireland, Belgium and Hong Kong discourage plastic bag use by imposing a levy.

China’s State Council, in January 2008 prohibited shops, supermarkets, and sales outlets from providing free plastic bags that are less than 0.025 millimetres thick. The NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission) announced recently that supermarkets had reduced plastic bag usage by 66 percent. The commerce administration enforced the ban through a 600,000-strong army of regulators who inspected some 250,000 retail outlets. Regulators imposed about two million yuan (US$293,000) in fines. The reduction in bag production saved China 1.6 million tons of petroleum. However, a survey by Global Village, a Beijing-based environmental group, found that more than 80 percent of retail stores in rural regions continued to provide plastic bags free of charge.

There are positive developments in Sri Lanka. Cargill’s and Keell’s are promoting re-usable bags. The problem is that it is very difficult to stop market traders using plastic bags even when one presents them with a re-usable bag in which to put ones purchases. Local government and workplaces could hammer the philosophy home. Tele-dramas could preach the anti-litter gospel. There is already a tradition of recycling newspapers and exercise books to make bags. Could these not be used  instead of rather than in addition to plastic?

It may seem like an uphill task to end Sri Lanka’s dependence on plastic bags and to raise awareness of the disadvantages of litter. Who would have thought a few years ago that the Irish could be prevented from having a smoke with their pint in the pub? Who would have thought they could be weaned almost overnight from the plastic bag?

There must be hope for Sri Lanka!