My secret love – supermarket plastic bags

Richard Meadows - Plastic Bags

When you stop and think about it, the humble plastic bag is a remarkable triumph of technology.

It costs a couple of cents to make, holds a thousand times its own weight, is waterproof, surprisingly durable, and 100 per cent recyclable.

After carrying your groceries home, it might hold

  • feijoas off the tree,
  • your togs and towel,
  • dirty rugby boots, and,
  • then end its life as a bin liner.

Having grown up with a ready supply of these miraculous freebies, I have mixed feelings about their imminent demise.

Even if the Government doesn’t follow through on its proposed ban, the supermarkets will phase them out by the end of this year.

The big question is what will replace them

It’s counter-intuitive, but plastic bags are far more energy efficient than any of the other options.

Paper’s out – it causes seven times more global warming than a plastic bag reused as a bin liner.

A cotton bag would have to be used 327 times to break even with plastic, and trendy “organic” cloth bags are hopelessly inefficient.

If you’re a twice-weekly shopper, you’d have to remember to bring your reusable bag on every single trip for three years straight.

If you slip up a single time and buy a new one, or break or throw one away, you’re doing more harm than good.

New World gave away 2 million reusable bags over summer.

In the post-plastic era, these sort of cheap freebies will be the new normal, treated with the same casual disdain, and binned or lost long before the break-even point.

Since cloth harbours nasty gremlins such as e coli, it’ll need to be washed with hot water and detergent, which blows out the environmental cost even more. In practice, most people will just toss them out when they get a bit manky-looking.

Sales of bin liners to increase

The supermarket chains can’t believe their luck.

The overseas experience suggests they’re about to receive a massive boost in the sale of bin liners, which they essentially gave away for free all these years, and come out of the whole thing looking like heroes, despite potentially making global warming worse.

Of course, carbon emissions aren’t the only concern. Plastic takes ages to degrade compared to natural materials, and wreaks havoc on wildlife when it ends up in the sea.

Littering is the issue

While this is terrible, “single use” plastic bags only represent 0.2 per cent of the waste that goes to landfill.

Packaging material – like the trays and shrink-wrap and packets that we put in the bag – are 300 times worse.

Since plastic bags are fully recyclable these days, what we really have is an issue with littering.

If you reuse and dispose of them correctly, there’s no worries.

So why have plastic bags been singled out as the devil incarnate, despite being a minuscule part of the problem? “Ban the bag” campaigners say it’s low-hanging fruit that gives us an easy win.

The more cynical explanation is that it lets us feel the righteous pride of doing our bit, without having to make any real sacrifices.

There’s a flaw in our psychology called “moral licensing”, which makes us less inclined to behave virtuously after we’ve already done some token good deed.

This is how someone can pilot a two-tonne SUV from their massive home filled with stuff, emerge from the supermarket with an eco-bag full of packaging, shrink-wrapped slabs of miserable animal flesh, and plastic junk “collectables”, and still see themselves as someone who cares about the environment.

After all, they’ve done their bit.

The truth is that eating one less meat dish a week would make vastly more of a difference.

  • So would biking or walking to the supermarket.
  • So would stepping off the hamster wheel of consumerism.
  • So would donating money to offset carbon emissions, or to cleaning up the ocean.

These are the hard things, and no-one wants to do them.

Banning plastic bags is fiddling while Rome burns.

It’s not important to make a difference, as long as you look like you’re making a difference; preferably with a limited edition hemp tote that has a cute picture of a seal on it and only cost $2.

Giving the remarkable plastic bag the respect it deserves is as simple as reducing, reusing, and being a tidy Kiwi.

If you want to be truly virtuous, a meaningful lifestyle change is required.

  • Richard Meadows is a journalist and the author of “Budget Buster”. After saving $100,000 by age 25, he quit his full time job, sold everything he owned and moved to Asia to live out of a backpack. Deep Dish is where he documents his experiments in frugality, simple living and minimalism.
  • Image: The Deep Dish
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