It’s time to throw out the use-and-throw-away culture

Author: Anna Peña Farell

The ‘free’ plastic bags we are given in shops are an outstanding example of the use-and-throw-away culture. This custom, so convenient at first sight, is the friendly face of a series of problems recognised by everyone. We know perfectly well what we have to do to eliminate this custom, but, at present, only a brave few do it. The Catalunya Lliure de Bosses [A Bag-free Catalonia] campaign is fighting to help us take this step.

When we go shopping we are usually given a bag (normally plastic) to carry our purchases and we are not asked if we want one. Some supermarkets even have a system at the check-out for filling the bags automatically. Usually we don’t stop to think whether we want one; we take it and, when we get home, we throw it away or keep it. By doing this, we can accumulate hundreds of bags! And this is not such a good thing!

Going beyond the individual level, we can see that the practice of putting everything we buy in bags has very undesirable effects for us collectively.

  • In Spain, 540 tonnes of plastic bags are manufactured every day, including those used by shops, bin liners and bags for frozen food.[1] Consumption is particularly high at weekends (10 million bags in Catalonia alone each weekend).[2]
  • Plastic bags are an oil derivative and the social and environmental problems associated with the extraction and use of oil are well known.[3]
  • The other main component in the manufacture of plastic bags is the energy used to make them: 0.04 kWh for each bag.[4] For each bag you don’t take you save enough energy to run your TV for half an hour; if everybody in Spain does it, we can save enough energy to power a TV for 2,233 years. And then we have to add the energy used to transport the bags.
  • In Catalonia less than 10% of plastic bags are recycled; the rest are dumped in landfill sites or incinerated, a waste of valuable resources.[5] Incineration does not make them disappear but converts them into ash, slag and smoke, all toxic to a considerable degree. The energy we can obtain by incinerating plastic bags (using the heat to generate electricity) is 10 times smaller than the amount of energy we can save by recycling them. Incinerators occupy valuable areas of land and contribute little wealth to the local economy. For their part, landfill sites release toxic liquids and harmful gases and their location can lead to serious social conflict.
  • It is common to use these plastic bags to dispose of household waste, but we consume far more than we reuse in this way: waste treatment plants receive many plastic refuse bags containing other plastic bags.[6] If they are used for organic waste, fragments of plastic are left together with the waste which is decomposing and the resulting compost cannot be used as fertiliser, which would be the best use for it (currently it is used to restore landfill sites and degraded areas and for landscaping). For non-organic waste it is better to buy bin liners (these are made largely from recycled plastic).
  • Many bags also end up disfiguring the environment. They often accumulate in windy areas, but if we look at the sides of the road in any part of the country we can see very few spaces free of bags and other non-biodegradable waste.
  • Plastic bags from shops are a symbol of the use-and-throw-away culture of ephemeral objects, which is far from desirable.[7]

People in all spheres of life (politics, the economy, business, ecology) are aware of these problems, as shown by European and Spanish legislation, which states that effective policies need to be developed to phase out plastic bags.

However, government bodies rely mainly on voluntary agreements with businesses in the commercial sector and campaigns to raise public awareness to achieve their objectives. It is well known that such ‘voluntary’ measures are rarely effective and that they often lead to delays in finding a solution (because really effective measures are applied much later than they could have been, while people are distracted and public money is spent on measures to patch up the problem). If they do achieve results, this only happens in the long term and they are not always consolidated. The commercial sector itself does not believe that voluntary agreements will be effective in reducing the use of plastic bags; in the working groups on plastic bags organised in Barcelona by the Catalan Foundation for Waste Prevention and Responsible Consumption (FPRC) in 2007, representatives of the commercial sector and associations concluded that a bold stand was needed in applying a regulatory tool to reduce the use of plastic bags throughout the commercial sector.

If we look at the real situation, we can see that, despite EC and Spanish recommendations and regulations that have been referring to ‘good intentions’ for some years, over the last decade the amount of rubbish we generate has increased by 49% in terms of weight, while packaging has increased by 65%.

If you whant to, you can

We know perfectly well which measures taken by governments are most effective and efficient if they really want to change something in the society they govern: binding regulations and measures to ensure compliance with them. When this has been done it has always worked, as can be seen from various examples in different countries:

  • After consulting all the economic sectors involved and the public, the Irish government passed a law in 2002 obliging shops to charge for plastic bags and record the charge on customers’ receipts. In practice the amount is a tax, used for waste management and environmental education. Initially the charge for a plastic bag was €0.15. After three months consumption had fallen by 90%. Today the charge is 22 cents per bag, and people use an average of 20 per year (less than two per month); before the law was passed each person used 20 per month (i.e. 12 times as many). According to Irish government sources, consumers have reacted positively to the tax on plastic bags and it has been seen that the public have become more sensitive to other environmental issues and problems.
  • Also in 2002, Bangladesh passed a law banning the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags and promoted the use of bags made of jute, a vegetable fibre of which the country has abundant supplies.
  • Modbury in the United Kingdom was the first town in the world to declare itself free of plastic bags. A number of traders in the town agreed, without the intervention of the town council, to stop using plastic bags and make reusable bags available to their customers. The initiative was prompted by a consumer who went from shop to shop explaining the problem of plastic bags and the alternatives that could be adopted. Since then, over 80 municipalities in the United Kingdom have followed Modbury’s example.
  • Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Nairobi have passed laws which ban or restrict the use of disposable plastic bags.
  • In Beijing, shops are no longer allowed to give customers free plastic bags.[8]
  • In Terrassa (Barcelona), in 2006, as part of a campaign designed by the FPRC and coordinated jointly with the local ecological association, the town council and the Bakers’ Guild, all shops belonging to the Bakery Network (90% of all bakeries) signed an agreement to get rid of plastic bags. Cloth bags were distributed to all homes in the town (some 76,000) and a 96% reduction in the use of plastic bags was achieved. Today their use is still 81% lower. It can thus be seen that the introduction of a general measure for all establishments leads to efficient reductions.

What can I do?

  • When you leave the house to go shopping, get into the habit of taking a basket, a shopping trolley or cloth bag. It should become as normal as picking up your purse.
  • Always carry a folding bag in your handbag for odd purchases. They are light and take up very little space.
  • Insist that shopkeepers should not give you plastic bags and encourage them to support a tax for them. Ask to see the manager if the shop assistant is not responsible for the matter, or leave your suggestions in writing.
  • Suggest to traders’ associations in your town or neighbourhood that they should all agree to stop using plastic bags at the same time (it is difficult for a single shop or just a few to do this), and ask your local council to take action.

[1] Spanish Association of Plastic Industries (ANAIP), 2005.

[2] Catalan Foundation for Waste Prevention and Responsible Consumption (FPRC): Estudi per a la Prevenció de Residus; Limitació de la bossa de plàstic de nansa d’un sol ús, 2006.

[3] See the section ‘Porqués’ in issue no. 10 of Opcions.

[4] United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2006.

[5] Centre for Ecology and Alternative Projects (CEPA), 2006.

[6] Catalan Foundation for Waste Prevention and Responsible Consumption (FPRC): Limitació de les bosses de nansa d’un sol ús, 2007.

[7] See the section ‘Porqués’ in issue no. 24 of Opcions.