Speaking up for plastic bags
Sven Arnold (Photo: PIE)
There is cause for celebration. Usage of plastic carrier bags in Germany is down to an average of 24 per person per year, regardless of material thickness. This means that the national consumption of plastic bags has dropped by more than half since 2015 – voluntarily. Back then, Germans were using an average of 70 plastic bags per year, while the EU average was and continues to be nearly three times that.

The current initiative by the German environment minister Svenja Schulze to cement this voluntary triumph with a draft law to ban plastic bags may be the next logical step politically, but it is unnecessary for the German market and probably catastrophic for the environment.

Because in spite of all the cause for celebration, there is a big but: before the avalanche of ultra-thin plastic bags for fruits and vegetables, of carrier bags made of conventional plastic or compostable materials, of cloth and paper bags and these impossible-to-carry boxes that you can buy at the supermarket checkout and are supposed to reuse half a dozen times just to confirm their eco-friendliness – before all that, I had a cabinet full of plastic bags, as did probably everyone else in Germany.

Bags that were each used at least half a dozen times for all sorts of things – from storing bread to collecting chestnuts to packing shoes for a holiday. Some of them are still in use, even though they are nearly 20 years old by now. At some point the bags got holes in them, so I used them as bin bags. Is anyone really going to tell me that more reusing and recycling is possible? And the cost? Disappeared somewhere between the advertising and customer service budgets of department stores and shops.

These days, millions of people both inside and outside of Germany have to intentionally buy bags just to line their trash bins. For general waste and recycling bins, this probably amounts to around one hundred a year. Has anyone actually bothered to factor this into the oh-so-much-lower average consumption of plastic bags?

Sure, you can throw a plastic bag away after a single use. You certainly can, but you do not have to, and probably will not. A paper bag, on the other hand, leaves you hardly any choice. The lifespan of the plastic bag’s big rival – brown paper – is measured in minutes. A few raindrops or a damp vegetable spells the beginning of the end, and you are lucky if the bag makes it to your car intact. And for all that, its production is barely less destructive to the environment, considering how much energy, water, chemicals, wood and glue is used. The number of studies seeking to prove one thing or the other is legion and the possibility of any even moderately objective perspective has long since disappeared.

The fact that plastic bags can be found everywhere, often in places they do not belong, even ten kilometres under the ocean, can be viewed as disadvantageous or reprehensible, but – the necessary prosecution of those responsible notwithstanding – it does not have to be. It can instead be seen as an unbeatable advantage over paper bags, cartons and cotton bags, because unlike these options, it means you can gather up the plastic bags, even years later. You can clean them up and use them again, even if this means burning them for energy. You cannot do that with a soggy paper bag.

And those who close their eyes to the consequences of compostable plastic bags, perhaps because they have been shown striking images of the stomach contents of starved camels or dead dolphins, should ask themselves this question: How many additives, dyes and similar minerals are being released invisibly and unchecked as soon as the matrix material begins to break down? If you absolutely want to discourage people with a blanket law, the plastic bag in and of itself is the wrong target – especially in an anti-bag country like Germany.

Sven Arnold
Kunststoff Information Deputy Editor in Chief
19.09.2019 Plasteurope.com [243405-0]
Published on 19.09.2019

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