So I read a thing in the paper today about how consumer use of plastic bags is on the rise. This was written in such a way as to suggest it was A Bad Thing. It so happens I agree with this view - plastic bags are Not Good. Clearly, they have their uses. They can, for example, be left on trains, filled with the remnants of somebody's kerry-oot. Or they can be used as impromptu headgear during sudden showers of rain. They can be artfully draped from the tree branches along the sides of country roads - a phenomenon some friends of mine call, rather delightfully, 'witches' knickers'. This latter application has the added bonus of staying around for a good long time, gradually seeding the surrounding branches until a large part of the tree is covered in tattered, greying shreds waving gently in the breeze. (Incidentally, does anyone else remember when this particular ecological niche seemed to be largely taken up by the innards of cassette tapes? Time was you could hardly walk the length of yourself without seeing a tangled brown mass glinting among the branches of the nearest horse chestnut. But I digress.)
Sad pic of sad turtle eating bag
Despite the many and varied uses to which a plastic bag can be put, including of course that for which it is most renowned - cutting off the circulation to a large part of your hand with handles apparently made from razor blades - they are an Ecological Menace. Some recent random browsing on my part turned up a collection of mournful pictures showing various creatures wrapped in their non-biodegradable embrace. Whales, turtles and seabirds, apparently, eat them, mistaking them for jellyfish or other edible morsels. I'm quite sure the advance of the plastic bag affects other wildlife too - what one might do to the average animal digestive tract doesn't really bear thinking about.
It is unfair to place the burden of all this on the shoulders of the average consumer. Like many others, I attempt to be a Responsible Shopper, and have a collection of Bags For Life that would impress even the most ardent eco-warrior. But also like many others, I have a tendency to forget the damn things and end up buying yet another out of pure guilt at the supermarket checkout (which, by the way, I'm sure is a devious plan by BFL makers. Make 'em impossible to carry around in the average handbag by using that stiff and scratchy stuff that simply refuses to fold into a manageable shape.) Last time I cleaned out my hall cupboard, I found a bag of bags, holding nothing but dust bunnies the size of your Auntie and the remnants of one very dead spider. Ridiculous.
So. I have a very simple solution. The people who make plastic bags need to start using biodegradable materials. It's entirely do-able. We now have cornstarch bags for home composting use. Why aren't all plastic bags made of the same stuff? OK, it's probably more expensive. So what? Shops are charging us for them anyway, it's surely just a matter of passing the cost along. They might not be that strong, but again so what? How many times has a regular bag given way at the seams just as you were lifting it into the car / getting onto the bus / walking home, leaving a trail of consumer goods in your wake as you stagger along under the weight of your weekly shop, wondering vaguely if this is the time your hands will actually fall off? And how strong does a bag have to be to live forever in the cupboard under the sink once you've emptied it of what remains of your shopping? The only sensible solution to the pestilence of plastic is to stop making the stuff. It shouldn't be up to us to sort this out - well, not entirely, anyway. We can continue amassing vast collections of jute and hessian carriers and forgetting to take them with us every time we go shopping, but it's up to the people who feed this consumer addiction to start stepping up to the plate. Nuff said.
(Although I feel special mention should be given to the unique smell of those weird blue bags you get in most corner shops. What's up with that?)