Ban the use of plastic bags?
Posted by butalidnl on 22 March 2008
Manila councilor Numero Lim has proposed a ban on the use of plastic bags in all of Manila’s business establishments. According to the proposed ordinance, all supermarkets, grocery stores and other retail business establishments should use paper bags, bayong (woven grass or buri bags) and other biodegradable containers for packaging dry goods and grocery items. According to the EcoWaste Coalition, plastic bags and other synthetic packaging materials made up more than three fourths of the garbage found in Manila Bay. According to them, plastics take a thousand years to disintegrate and gradually release toxins into the water and soil.
We do not know whether the anti-plastic bag ordinance will be adopted. However, it does raise a serious environmental issue. It is also not unique to Manila. Many cities and countries around the world have regulations intended to cut the use of plastic bags. Starting 1 June 2008, stores in China are prohibited from giving out free plastic bags. San Francisco has banned the use of plastic bags since March 2007. Even Bangladesh has a ban – the reason for this is that plastic bags clog their drainage systems, aggravating their floods.
If the proposed ban does not pass, it will probably be due to objections to the added cost to the consumers, and difficulty in implementation. Some may even point out that the pollution in Manila bay is due to more cities, and not only Manila.
What I believe would be cheaper and perhaps easier to implement, will be to follow the Chinese measure – ban the giving out of free plastic bags. In other words, if customers want to use plastic bags, they should pay extra for it. At the same time, we should make an exception for meat, fish, poultry or fresh produce, which would then still be allowed to be put in free plastic bags (for reasons of sanitation -this is the rule followed in Israel) .
In addition, there should be a tax levied per plastic bag; and the proceeds of the tax should be used for clearing the Pasig and other waterways in Metro Manila, as well as Manila bay. [this tax should not be the only funds used for the clean-up though; the local governments should also allot significant amounts to this effort]
And most important: the ordinance should be adopted all over Metro Manila. Cities or municipalities which do not adopt this should be assessed extra for the clean-up of the waterways and Manila Bay (significantly more than the other cities and municipalities).
Prohibiting the giving out of free plastic bags will mean that people will be forced to either use reusable plastic bags, or other kinds of bags. However, we should also avoid that retailers shift to giving out single-use paper bags. While paper bags are biodegradable (unlike plastics), using too much paper is also bad for the environment, both in terms of trees cut down for raw material, as well as the chemicals needed to process the wood to paper. Thus, there may also be a need to impose a tax on single-use paper bags.
A note on the biodegradeability of plastics. The EcoWaste Coalition says that plastic takes thousands of years to disintegrate. This claim needs to be nuanced a bit. It depends on the kind of plastic, and where the plastics spend all this time. Polystyrene plastic, which is used where heat-resistance is important, is used for plastic plates, styrofoam cups, and even things like toys, packaging materials, etc is quite durable, and is not biodegradeable. Polystyrene plastic items, if thrown away, will take literally thousands of years to decompose. And since polystyrene is composed of very long strands of benzene rings, burning it or slow decomposition will release benzene, which is toxic.
Polyethelene, however, which is the kind of plastic most widely used for plastic bags, is said to decompose (when exposed to air and water) in about 20 years. And it decomposes into relatively harmless substances like water and methane.
Which brings us to the related idea: why not also take a measure to ban, or at least minimize, the use of items made of polystyrene plastics?