The Plastic Bag Fallacy

For several years now we have been told over and over again that plastic bags are hurting the environment and that plastic shopping bags are the bane of any decent human being anywhere. They should be shunned like the cute animal hurting, fish choking, environmental monster that they are.

Do you know why this is? Here's a simple task for you: imagine a garbage dump. A stinky, putrid mess of the slough of humanity, garbage that has been simply chucked away and has been put into a big pile. Usually in an out-of-the-way hole somewhere, where the council has decreed "this is tomorrows' problem".

What do you picture? Most likely, this:

And what is the biggest offender there? The most notorious, obvious, most prevalent bit of garbage out there filling up the precious space in the refuse filled hole?

Evil plastic garbage bags.

Environmentalists have cried and pointed at these plastic bags littering the delicate infrastructure of the humble hell hole of cast off's as the cause of all kitten tears. These plastic bags tumble to and fro on the wind, flutter at the tops of the piles and go down as far as you dare to dig.

Major shopping centres have done the right thing, found their moral compass and cried "no more!" They have manned up, decided to ignore the negative press of doing the right thing and committed fully to getting rid of the horrors of the plastic bag. They have dug deep, felt a stirring in their collective souls and borne the burden of righteous crusade to be environmental leaders and put their foot down and kick the plastic bag out of our irresponsible, clammy hands and force us to do the right thing.

*record scratch*

Hang on a moment – no, no they haven't! There is no morality, no "environmental responsibility", no deep desire to be green. The reason the shopping centres and malls and outlets have gleefully jumped onto the "ban the bag" bandwagon is the bottom line. Money. That's the only green they care about.

Let's step back for a moment and think about the issue. How and why did those plastic bags end up in the landfill? Sure, there will be a number there that were discarded simply because they were not required. But why are the majority there? Simple:

Most people use plastic bags to line their bins. In fact, a large number of rubbish bins are built to that particular size simply because that is the standard size of shopping bags. And it is a lot easier to pull out a bag and throw all the rubbish out neatly than it is to empty out the trash and wash the bin. And it'd need frequent washing to stop it stinking to high heaven, especially the kitchen rubbish bin, what with all the food scraps.

That's why so many plastic bags can be seen in the rubbish tip – they are full of rubbish!

Although I think it is a good idea to use sturdier bags that can be used to ferry shopping home over and over (or better yet, fabric ones that will last several years), super markets have fully embraced the plastic bag ban for two simpler, cash-ier reasons. First, they no longer have to spend money giving away free plastic bags. Second, they can sell you a packet of bin liner bags to line your rubbish bins.

Exactly the same number of plastic bags end up at the tip as what would have ended up there before, only now the shops have saved an expense plus generated an income from a sale. They'd have to be insane to keep to the old model and keep giving away free plastic bags!

The two exceptions I can think of would be shops that already had large stockpiles of plastic bags they were still working to get rid of, and shops that bowed to consumer pressure to keep providing free shopping bags.

Boutiques and speciality shops are different, they would have the cost of the bags well covered in the prices and they have stylised, branded bags that work well as unpaid advertising when shoppers are carrying the bags around before they go home.

But food and chain stores that just used the plain white plastic bags – they would have been more than happy to dump that expense from their bottom line. Plus be seen as being "environmentally friendly" (a big plus in today's society) without actually doing anything for the environment.

To sum up: by getting rid of free plastic bags at the checkout, more plastic bags end up at the tip (the ones people were going to use for rubbish anyway, plus the bags the bin liners came in!), corporations saved an expense and consumers get hit with an extra fee. Two if you count buying bin liners plus buying shopping bags to take the groceries home.

Net gain to the environment – zero.

That's the Plastic Bag Fallacy.

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