A paean to plastic

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Plastic bags festoon Colney Hatch tree

I love plastic. This Green heresy is not a perverse wilfulness on my part but a genuine awe at the closest to a magical substance I can imagine.

Plastic can come in any colour, or colours. It can be moulded into any shape, large and small. It can be made into thread for clothes; saved thousands of lives by being bullet-proof vests; and its thermal insulation qualities are legendary. It can be impervious or porous to certain substances and not others. Plastics don’t conduct electricity, aren’t soluble, and are generally inert. Best of all: Plastics don’t rust or rot. They last forever. And unlike clay pots that also last forever – often plastics can be recycled into new things. So here is something truly permanent. Hooray!

So what do we do with plastics? Make them into ephemeral bits of disposable packaging – bags, and bottles. Hold on a minute! Who allowed that? Why didn’t someone pass a law when there was still time? It’s akin to saying: Hey, lets build the Forth Bridge out of cardboard. It is precisely saying: Lets make consumer packaging out of plastic which lasts forever, so the bags and bottles will then, erm, last forever. Yippe-bloody-dee.

A precious substance fashioned primarily from a finite, expensive resource –oil– becomes ready-made, instant rubbish – epitomising the disposable society. Thoughtless, careless, and irresponsible.

People have a sense of cognitive dissonance over this illogic, and have channelled it into a fetish with plastic bags. I don’t disagree –

See the eyesore in the Colney Hatch tree (pictured) that Phil and I tackled just with our hands.

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Phil points to the tree we cleared of bags

See the many bags that enter the waste stream – often included in our blue, brown and green Barnet bins, where they don’t belong! They don’t decompose along with our food and garden waste (green and brown). They can’t be sorted by the recycling system (blue); instead they blow around the plant gumming up the machines and causing a fire hazard (see here for details).

Put them in the black bins – and they linger in landfill for decades. Or not. I paraphrase:

Plastic bags catch the wind like sails and are whisked out of bins, landfill sites and council tips. People drop them also. Plastic bags can travel many miles in this way.

Worst of all is when land on water. Due to its surface tension, they remain there. This means that our seas and rivers are full of old plastic bags.

There the damage caused to wildlife is well documented and heartbreaking – as they kill sea creatures such as whales, turtles, and sea birds that mistake plastic bags for food and beyond that actually threaten the extinction of more than one species.

People have written to me since I announced I was writing this blogpost to complain about the ineluctable forces that shower them with plastic bags – shop-staff required to offer bags to every customer. I know! I am subject to these forces also. It has to stop!


But there’s much more than plastic bags to this problem. The magic of permanence is being turned into a curse every time a bit of plastic is discarded. The Guardian‘s Fiona Harvey reminds us that

plastic bags are only a small part of the problem. They account for only 0.03% of marine litter, according to the industry organisation Incpen.

The packaging that we all use, in day-to-day activities from buying food in supermarkets to our deliveries from online shopping centres, has a much greater – though less obvious – effect on pollution.


Harvey reminds us that such packaging greatly extends shelf-life of perishable foods, so reducing the devastation of food waste, which plagues places without refrigeration and abundant plastics even more painfully than in Britain.

But she offers this argument in mitigation of our condemning plastics. No! The fact that plastics are useful is not in dispute. What is at issue is their disposal. They are helpful in preserving foods on the shelf – great. Once they leave the shelf, they should surely be retrieved; not thrown away. If it is possible, with the ingenuity of our advanced capitalist society, to fill our supermarkets with foodstuffs and goods flown, shipped, processed, refrigerated, packaged and sold to millions of customers sometimes 24-hours a day (this sentence is getting out of hand).

Starting again – it must surely be equally possible when the sale has occurred to retrieve the packaging, separately, for re-use before the customer leaves the shop.

Neither bags nor bottles are essential for food preservation – glass can do the job for drinks (yes, it’s heavy – so charge for the expense, and we’ll bring our own bottle, you’ll see!), and string bags can do the job of bags.

Take disposable plastic out of consumers’ hands. We will thank you for it. Yes, we’ll moan about the time it takes at the checkout. But heck we deal with it at airports. Travel hasn’t reduced due to longer security queues, and the future of the planet and its biodiversity is a security issue less immediate, but arguably more significant, than an underpants bomber.

So thanks also to those of you who wrote to me suggesting ways to reduce plastic bag use (charging the supplier rather than “taxing” the consumer as a better route). I’m sure you’re right, but would ask you to think bigger: how shall we dispose of disposable plastics altogether? And how shall we replace disposable plastics in our everyday lives?

And finally, if you think this blogpost a bit long, be grateful I have not attended to what Harvey describes as the primary use for plastic bags: as containers of human and dog faeces. Enough already!


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