Plastic carrier bags are a nice example of how to rework the universe without putting in any real effort. While, as individuals, we don’t get through many bags it’s estimated that, as individuals acting together, Britain uses about 10 billion plastic bags every year. That’s probably enough to go round the earth ten times. I’ve no idea how that relates to elephants, football fields or double-decker buses, which are the other popular clichés for size comparison. Off the top of my head I’d say it’s enough to carry six million elephants to two million football fields using twelve double-decker buses.
The badness in the mass bagness comes in how they’re made and how long they take to biodegrade. It’s estimated your average plastic bag takes about 500 years to break down. I say estimated because no one’s been able to witness it yet. There was hope in George Burns but since he bailed we’ll just have to imagine in the year 2508 a future environmentalist will look on as the last molecule of a carrier turns to dust and say, “Yep. 500 years.” It’s a figure that’s either been worked out scientifically or made up so for now, and for the purposes of this page, we’ll use our own estimate of how long a plastic bag will take to biodegrade: ages.
So, we have shitloads of plastic bags bought and binned every year, and the knowledge that they will take ages to biodegrade. What to do? Actually, three pretty simple things. First, refuse plastic bags whenever possible; the fewer we need, the fewer will be made for us. Second, use them repeatedly or use a fabric bag in their place; reusable Fairtrade bags are widely available and get you extra points. Third, recycle plastic carriers when they’re worn out. Most supermarkets have recycle banks for the bags they supply. Once they’ve been gotten rid of, stick with the reusable cloth bags to close the loop forever.
This works. Figures from 2009 suggest we used 4,152 million fewer bags than in 2006. That’s a good start. So there’s the world saved again, and no one broke a nail or worked up a sweat.