So, is the 5p tax the Government has just slapped on plastic shopping bags the right way to go about “saving the environment”? Or with a little more thought, could they have avoided the law of unintended consequences?

It’s true that over 7 billion bags are apparently handed out annually to supermarket customers in Britain, and that’s 7 billion a year which potentially litter the roads and the countryside and clog the seas, not only creating an eyesore but also a possible danger to animals and fish and even to agriculture. Researchers fear that these omnipresent bags may never fully decompose but instead gradually turn into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that even microorganisms won’t recognise as food and so cannot technically ‘biodegrade’.

On the other hand, plastic shopping bags are very useful. They avoid dry foods from touching each other and liquids from leaking. They are often used more than once for many things, perhaps for shopping again, perhaps as a kit bag to bring wet clothes home from the gym, for packed lunches, to dispose of cat litter or, more often as bin liners. So if the shops don’t hand out plastic shopping bags, then others will have to be bought in their place — in Wales when the 5p scheme was first rolled out, the sale of bin liners increased by 250% — and as these will eventually be disposed of one way or another, there will be no environmental saving.

That’s one of the laws of “unintended consequences”.

Another is the fact that plastic bags are basically made from Naphthalene (or Naptha), part of the petroleum refining industry, which is otherwise completely useless and would have to be burned off during refinement. This would add a little more CO2 to the atmosphere and in spite of the fact that it would simply make more plants grow, the environmentalists positively hate it. They have the idea that CO2 would only burn up the planet.

So, would it be “greener” to replace plastic bags with paper ones? That may look, at first glance, to be the case. But to begin with, it rains quite a bit in Britain, and paper bags or sacks might well disintegrate before getting home with the supper. And in any case, paper means cutting down more trees, and aren’t we encouraged to avoid overusing paper in order to save the trees?

But given a little thought, there could well be an environmentally sound answer to the plastic bag problem.

Many companies, both here and abroad, are now researching the development of biodegradable plastics to make anything from plain old shopping bags to containers for the growing of crops. These are plastics which decompose by the action of living organisms, usually bacteria. The material commences breakdown once discarded into the environment and rapidly breaks down into biodigestable constituents, and at this point the material is no longer a littering hazard. Nor would it create a danger for nature.  Then, if in a suitable environment, the material will biodegrade to leave water, biomass — and CO2.

This, of course, won’t please everyone but then, in this life you can’t have everything, no matter what the environmentalists think!

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