Photo by Lee Woolcock
Weekends are when people tend to do the most shopping, so it may come as no surprise that those days are when a lot of plastic bags get used. What is surprising, however, is just how many plastic bags that turns out to be: four million on a busy weekend in Barcelona, according to Ajuntament figures, and 14 million over that same weekend for all of Catalunya.
Created only three decades ago, the plastic shopping bag has spread around the planet with the speed of an epidemic. Like cars, buildings and asphalt, it has become an intrinsic element of modern living. Defying geographical frontiers, plastic bags have inundated urban and country landscapes alike, colonising big cities in the developed world, rural areas in Africa and indigenous communities in the heart of the Amazon jungle.
How did this happen? An invention of industrial society, plastic bags are virtually free. They are so cheap and easy to produce, and so infinitely available in all forms, colours and sizes that shoppers around the world just keep reaching for them—one for the tomatoes, another for the mushrooms, yet another for the oranges. Between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year, according to various estimates.
Prompted by a grim environmental prognosis, however, consumers have begun to reconsider the real price of the ‘free’ plastic bag. It is estimated that each bag has an average utilitarian life of 15 minutes (from a shop to a flat, say), but may take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose. So what happens to the millions that are being disposed of every minute? Besides adorning the landscape—branches of trees, roadsides, fields and pavements—they are often found in the bodies of whales, fish and seabirds that have died as a result of swallowing them. British marine biologists have recorded plastic bags as far as 120 miles from shore in waters as deep as 4,000 metres. Startling images have appeared in the media: cows in India chewing on bags (hundreds of cows in India are said to die each year choking on plastic bags), pink flamingos strangling themselves on bags impossible to untangle or pelicans dead after diving for a prey that turns to be a plastic bag. Last year, Whitey, a 10-foot long crocodile that was part of the Australian government’s wildlife tracking programme died unexpectedly and 25 garbage and shopping bags were found in his body.
Shopping bags made of plastic can litter areas far removed from urban reality. Because they are completely unequipped to deal with the created waste, the stark plastic flags can be seen flapping along the shores of the grand Amazon tributaries. Landfills around the world are cluttered with single-use plastic bags, adding to the ever-growing mountains of waste. In Catalunya for example, plastic bags constitute 22 percent of the landfill waste.
Understanding that the environmental price of the ‘free’ plastic bag has proved higher than humanity can afford, governments around the world have initiated measures to curb their use. Bangladesh was the first state to ban plastic bags in 2002, and Ireland followed by introducing a substantial tax on plastics that reportedly reduced the use of the notorious bags by 90 percent. In Bhutan, plastic bags are officially considered ‘to make the country less happy’, and therefore their use is not allowed. China has also prohibited the ultra-thin bags; in France and Italy bans are expected to go into effect in 2010. At the same time, people have realised that paper bags are not a better alternative, as they consume much more energy to produce and recycle, and they often end up in the landfills instead of being recycled, which increases their environmental footprint.
Late last year, the Generalitat announced that starting in January 2009, there would be a ban on the free distribution of plastic bags, making Catalunya the first Spanish autonomous community to do so. The new legislation was going to require that supermarkets and shops charge for the bags, deciding on their own how much that extra charge would be. The proposal, however, sparked heated debates in the Catalan Parliament, and was criticised by both commercial organisations and green activists for its hastiness, and for setting up inequalities and confusion among customers.
The controversy was sidestepped just moments before the proposal was made into law. Instead, in the first part of this year a newly-created commission has been working on an effective system to replace the plastic bags, looking at voluntary agreements with merchants and supermarkets to stop their free distribution. Despite the late legislative change-of-heart, Día supermarkets is continuing with its policy of charging customers for plastic bags, and Bonpreu supermarkets are doing the same.
“I always try to bring my own bags made of fabric or to carry things in my hands when I can,” said Anna Ametller, a native Catalan and a Barcelona resident of many years. An artist, who often uses recycled materials in her work, Ametller fully supports a plastic bag-free city. “I think non-degradable bags should be completely eliminated. We can make bags better with eco-materials and a design that makes them more versatile, with a longer life and not for a single use only.”
Although this vision may take a while to manifest as reality, it is clearly one that Barcelona’s Ajuntament is eager to encourage. In December, the city made 30,000 cotton bags available for free at its Punts Verds (recycling points around the city) as a way to promote a more sustainable shopping bag alternative. Reducing the city’s waste and fostering a culture of re-use and recycling is one of the main targets in Barcelona’s Agenda 21, a programme aimed at minimising the city’s environmental impact, conserving natural resources and developing renewable assets.
“I know biodegradable plastic bags exist, but I have yet to see them here in Barcelona,” said Diana Martinez, a San Diego native who recently moved here. She said that she always brings a mesh bag for her shopping and that she’s been getting better at telling shop cashiers that she doesn’t need a plastic one. “We need alternatives that are better environmentally, but if the means to be greener aren’t available or convenient, most people will not go out of their way to change, unfortunately. If bio-plastic was sold here, I would use it, and try even harder to not bring any bags home.”
With the Spanish government expected to impose a nationwide ban on non-degradable bags in 2010, the prospects are hopeful that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the plastic bag era. Catalunya is aiming to reduce the use of the bags by 30 percent this year and by 50 percent in 2012. Yet, no one underestimates the fact that the willingness of Barcelona’s residents to be part of the change is the most crucial step along the way. As the city’s Agenda 21 recognises, sustainable and environmentally-sound living requires not only better socio-economic organisation and more efficient technologies, but “also and especially, changes in civic attitudes.”
For real change to take place, the first thing that needs recycling is the consumer’s mind.