Spurred by a filmmaker’s documentary, the English town of Modbury became the first in Europe to ban them outright.
The British filmmaker had already recoiled in disgust at deserted Hawaiian beaches piled up with four feet of rubbish, the jetsam of Western consumerism washed up by an ocean teeming with plastic. Now, filming off the coast, she looked on aghast as sea turtles eagerly mistook bobbing translucent shapes in the water for jellyfish.
"Sea turtles can’t read Wal-mart or Tesco signs on plastic bags," fumes Ms. Hosking, who returned to Britain in March. "They will home in on it and feed on it. Dolphins mistake them for seaweed and quite often they’ll eat them and it causes huge damage."
Within a few weeks of coming back, Hosking persuaded her hometown to ban plastic bags outright and found herself in the vanguard of a sudden British revulsion for that most disposable convenience of the throwaway society.
Stores, grass-roots groups, and citizens are joining forces to reduce national consumption of plastic bags, and Hosking is fielding hundreds of requests a day for guidance.
Wave of plastic-bag activism
Dumbstruck by what she’d seen off the Hawaiian coast during her year-long filmmaking trip, Hosking set up a local screening of her film and invited the town’s 43 shopkeepers to come see where plastic bags end up.
All but seven of them showed up. At the end of the viewing, held in a local hall, Hosking called for a show of hands in support of a voluntary ban on plastic bags. Every single hand went up. The rest of the town’s shopkeepers quickly followed suit. On May 1, Modbury won bragging rights as the first plastic-bag-free town in Europe.
Now, larger towns and even cities are calling up Hosking to ask how she did it. Supermarkets and other retailers are experimenting with plastic-bag-free days, reusable totes, or even buy-your-own bags to discourage usage.
Retailer Sainsbury introduced a limited-edition reusable cotton bag with the logo "I am not a plastic bag," emblazoned on it. Priced at $10, within an hour 20,000 of them sold out. Others stores are trying out paper bags and "green" checkout lines for environmentally friendly customers who bring their own bags.
Another grass-roots action group, We Are What We Do, was surprised by the strength of feeling on the issue. For a book entitled "Change the world for a fiver" (five British pounds), its activists asked 1 million people what their top suggestions were to make the world a better place. Eschewing plastic bags was one of the most frequent responses, and is now one of its top campaigns.
"It’s one of the worst indicators of indulgence and excess," says Eugenie Harvey, cofounder of the group, which seeks to inspire people to change the world through everyday actions. "In this country, we [each] use nearly 200 bags a year on average. They can take up to 500 years in landfill to break down. It’s needless waste."
Hosking adds, "They are the epitome of throw-away living. It’s amazing how many people want to [stop using them], how many towns are keen to get rid of them. We have had 800 e-mails a day." Modbury is even organizing for plastic bags to be recycled into furniture to remove at least some from circulation.
Yet an awful lot remain. Estimates vary wildly when it comes to mankind’s propensity for the ultimate in convenience shopping. Environmental groups guesstimate that up to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year.
In Britain the figure is 8 billion – 134 per person. Some will be reused or employed as wastebasket liners. But billions end up back in the environment, fluttering from trees and hedges in China, disrupting the digestion of Indian cows, scudding along the ocean floor, and suffocating an estimated 100,000 birds, whales, seals, and turtles each year.
Reduced CO2 emissions
And there is a climate-change dimension as well: Plastic bags are manufactured using oil. Cutting usage in Britain by a quarter would reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 63 tons a year – equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off the road, the government says.
Some countries have taken decisive action against the plastic bag. Bangladesh and Taiwan have banned them. Ireland took a much-lauded step of imposing a tax (€0.15 per bag) in 2002, leading to usage reduction of up to 95 percent. Next month, California will become the first US state to force supermarkets to provide recycling bins.
But so far, despite the growing public clamor in Britain, the government is showing no signs of introducing a ban or a tax. It prefers encouraging retailers to sign up to waste recycling commitments.
The latest arrangement, agreed in February, commits big stores to reducing the environmental impact of their shopping bags by 25 percent by the end of next year. Government minister Ben Bradshaw called it an "ambitious" agreement and noted that consumers had become "increasingly aware that they can make positive choices to help the environment in the way they shop."
But Hannah Chance, spokeswoman for Sainsbury, a big supermarket chain, says a total ban is unlikely at the moment. Sainsbury has tried bag-free days and promoting its reusable "bag for life."
But Ms. Chance says "it would be too radical to completely remove them. The plastic bag does have a functional purpose in life. In cities a lot of people don’t have a car. Lots of people use it as a [trash] bag at the end of the day. It’s giving customers things that are practical." She said they did try out biodegradable bags, but they weren’t strong enough.
Harvey says that Gordon Brown, poised to take over as prime minister next week, once declared that governments "respond to the climate that people create." In other words, as one wag once put it, in order to lead people in Britain, first find out where they’re going and then walk in front of them.
But it remains to be seen if enough people will move in this direction.
Anecdotal evidence would appear to show that those who bring their own bags to supermarkets with them are still in a minority.
Campaigners say they hope that by Christmas it will be "as fashionable to carry plastic as it is to wear fur," but privately admit that they may have a much longer wait.
Plastic stats – and solutions
500 billion: Number of plastic bags consumed worldwide every year (1 million per minute)
500: Years it takes a plastic bag to decay in landfill
167: Bags used annually by the average British consumer
4.175 million: "Average" person’s plastic-bag legacy, in years
£64 to £80 million ($127 million to $159 million): Amount British retailers spend yearly on providing plastic bags to customers
Countries making headway:
•Since Denmark introduced a packaging tax in 1994, consumption of paper and plastic bags has declined by 66 percent.
•In October 2001, Taiwan introduced a ban on distribution of free single-use plastic bags by government agencies, schools, and the military. In 2003, the ban was extended to include supermarkets, fast-food outlets, and department stores. Customers must now pay NT$1 to NT$2 (30 to 60 cents) for a bag.
•The Irish government says that a tax on plastic bags, introduced in 2002, has cut their use there by more than 95 percent. The "plas tax" has also raised millions of euros, to be used for environmental projects.
•Bangladesh slapped an outright ban on all polythene bags in 2002 after they were found to have been the main culprit during the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country. Discarded bags had choked the country’s drainage systems.
•In 2006, Hong Kong began a voluntary drive to reduce plastic-bag use. Since then, supermarkets have handed out 80 million fewer plastic bags.•The English town of Modbury became the first plastic-bag free town in Europe after all 43 of its independent retailers committed to banning the bag.