Comment: Plastic shopping bags should not be banned

The ubiquitous plastic shopping bag is easily the most useful “free” item to come along since free book matches were on every store counter decades ago.

Those were, of course, replaced by the cheap, non-refillable and disposable plastic lighters, of which there are now billions in the world’s landfills.

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If you take the time to spread out and examine one of these bags, you will see that it is a seriously designed, remarkable bit of plastics engineering, made for vast production. They work perfectly. They are eminently reusable. And, they are completely recyclable into other “things.”

When it comes to reuse, these bags are first rate. A tote when you need one. The fact that they have handles is the trick. Great for carrying books. You can carry many in one hand, governed only by weight. I have clever, inexpensive bag dispensers in my kitchen and shop. My wife even has a cool, tiny one in her purse, which holds two bags.

Polyethylene bags are made for myriad uses in stupefying numbers. They are deeply entwined with our daily life. Your sliced deli meat, bread, produce, bulk foods come in them. You pick up your dog poop with one. Everybody puts their trash into a poly garbage bag.

Stores devote considerable shelf space to plastic bags of every description, because we buy them in enormous numbers for our modern needs. So, what happens to them once we have “used” them? Of course, all garbage bags go to the landfill. That’s what they are made for.

So why are the Surfrider Foundation and some Victoria councillors banning only retail plastic shopping bags? Well, that’s simple. They are an easy and very visible “enviro-symbolic” target.

Also, they are the only bag they could possibly ban. And retailers can be bullied with bylaw power, to suit the agenda of a tiny number of people who self-righteously think they know what is best for us all. With no serious say from us all.

A few cosy little “input” gatherings at city hall do not cut it. Also, the fact that this whole “ban-the-bags” idea is being driven by serious and insulting misinformation is troubling and outrageous.

It is sad that most people trust the environmental groups, and accept what they say as gospel truth. And human nature being what it is, sometimes some of these groups use this trust to play fast and loose with that gospel truth.

I have always respected the Surfrider Foundation. Their main website is very good, and their mission, programs and accomplishments are what we truly need. I especially appreciate their beach-cleanup efforts.

But when I visited their web page for banning the bags in Victoria, I was appalled and dismayed at the deception, exaggeration and statistical nonsense it carried regarding the shopping bags.

There is not enough room here to dissect this web page, but a viewing with a discerning eye and Google, will show just what I mean.

According to Surfrider, poly shopping bags should be banned because: “Plastics are commonly found in and on Vancouver Island’s rivers, lakes and beaches.” That statement is an extreme exaggeration. It is also an insult to the people of our Island.

We are amongst the cleanest societies in the world. Canada’s contribution to the planetary oceanic plastics nightmare is minuscule, and Vancouver Island’s is almost nonexistent. We do not go to our beaches to discard our waste plastics.

Our open-ocean beaches are littered with debris, including plastics. There are two pertinent facts about this junk: It all floats in water. And almost all of it floated here.

For decades, increasing flotsam has been arriving on the coast of North America, carried by the Japan Current from a dozen Asian countries with the most abysmal environmental habits. To use this beached Asian garbage and other deceptions to promote banning shopping bags is beyond shameful.

The world uses four “consumed” plastics: Polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate and Styrofoam (as food containers). The first three are easy and profitable to recycle.

Styrofoam food boxes and cups are not. They are difficult to recycle, and most aren’t. They go to the landfill, were they become toxic as they break down.

Styrene monomer is not nice stuff. Banning disposable Styrofoam food containers is morally and sensibly necessary.

Yes, there are plastic “things” that should be banned, but polyethylene shopping bags are not one of them.

I think interfering with the efficient operations of myriad retailers, not to mention a horde of annoyed customers, over a flaky and trendy, but fictitious, enviro-cause is really nasty, haughty and dumb. One municipal councillor has called this proposed bylaw “absolutely fraudulent rubbish.” So it goes.

Robert Matthews of Victoria is a retired plastics artificer, whose factories did not use poly bags. He studies plastics environmental problems and consults on solutions.

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