Does plastic bags ban help the environment?

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One Monday evening, I stood in a long queue at a local supermarket at Joina Centre. At the front was a young man, juggling grapes as he tried to hand them to the cashier to be weighed.

“Let me get you a plastic bag,” the cashier suggested.

“Do I have to pay for it?” the man asked. “No you will have to pay for a paper bag, it’s only 10c or R1,” said the cashier. “No. No,” the man answered hurriedly. “I brought my own!”

The cashier glanced at the growing line of impatient shoppers. And the young man turned around, too, a pained look spreading across his face.

It was, perhaps, a sign of the times. The plastic bag, that staple of modern life, is about to become radioactive.

The whole thing seemed a little silly, even to me, one of those vaguely preachy supermarket shopper types who brings along his canvas bag only to guiltily head home with it full of plastic bags of produce.

But it’s not happening just at the shops. Plastic is the fastest-growing component of the waste stream.

And because plastic essentially never biodegrades, once littered plastic becomes a permanent environmental problem.

The solution is clear: highly-littered plastic items like plastic bags and polystyrene food packaging need to be banned.

Zimbabweans should reduce their use of disposable packaging. And what packaging that remains should be recycled through the model.

Plastic bags, first introduced in the 1950s as a convenient way to store food, have since developed into a global scourge, littering roadsides, clogging sewer drains and landfills and getting ingested by animals and marine life.

A colleague, Masimba Biriwasha, wrote “the vehicle seamlessly disappears behind a curve, heading towards its destination while the plastic containers lie lifelessly on the ground, waiting to be blown away into thickets of grass nearby”.

As plastics play an increasing role in packaging and consumer products, they also take up a growing percentage of municipal solid waste streams and pose environmental challenges.

Litter, especially plastic, poses a serious threat to wildlife. It also ends up collecting in landfills or clogs rivers and streams when it rains.

Environment minister Francis Nhema believes plastics are responsible for the death of 5 000 animals annually, including donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats.

“An ingested plastic bag remains intact even after the death and decomposition of the animal, thus it lies around on the landscape where another victim may ingest it.”

While increased demand for paper bags in the wake of plastic bag bans could lead to more deforestation, most paper grocery bags in use today are made from recycled content, not virgin wood. Also, an added benefit of paper over petroleum-based plastic is its biodegradability.

Land filling plastics is generally a benign practice because plastics are chemically inert. Some additives to plastics do provoke concern if they should migrate from the plastics into the leachate.

But the latest shift on plastic bags might not be as painless. While subbing tap water for bottled water is effortless, giving up plastic bags is an inconvenience.

We must either take our own bag to the store or use paper bags, which environmentalists argue aren’t much better than the plastic ones; after all, we need those trees to soak up the carbon dioxide spewed by our SUVs.

And it means changing the hearts and minds of others. It’s one thing to hold up the line at a supermarket. It’s quite another at a grittier store, such as the Fife Avenue Spar.

My colleague who takes his own bags there says the cashier’s reaction is somewhere between disbelief and disgust.

Instead of prematurely banning the use plastic bags, the Environmental Management Agency should have public campaigns, setting out regulations and enforcing them.

For most people, plastic bags are a part of everyday life, but their effect on mammals, landfills and the environment are causing many to take a second look.

Plastic bag pollution is a huge problem in oceans across the world. From the deepwater trenches of the Mediterranean to the Red Sea coast of Yemen, plastic bags account for most of the debris, according to a 2009 publication by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Plastic bags do more than destroy the aesthetics of pristine beaches and waterways. They can choke wildlife, wrap around ship propellers and get sucked into boat engines.

Plastic bags cause problems on land as well as on water. They don’t biodegrade, taking up permanent space in landfills.

Even once they’re in the landfill, it’s easy for plastic bags to escape, lifted away by a breeze to become tangled in a chain-link fence or stuck in a tree

Re-usable canvas or cotton bags eliminate the need for plastic bags altogether. But a compromise may work best where if approved, the measure will charge grocery and liquor store customers for their plastic bags.

Email: mdzungairi@newsday.co.zw