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Plastic not fantastic

Peter Gillson | Published:

ABOUT a month or so ago I watched three fascinating BBC documentaries by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani. They focused on our use of plastic and how our society disposes of it. If you missed them, they are well worth finding on BBC iPlayer (search for War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita).

Plastic waste dumping site. (Picture by Mohamed Abdulraheem/Shutterstock)

At one point, Hugh went to the Far East to see where plastics collected in Britain ended up. The result was shocking – some open burning of plastics, and the open dumping of ton upon ton of the stuff. Football field quantities of plastic heaped up and left in the open.

Obviously, we do not know how the raw footage was edited but the programme showed that a large proportion of the plastic was from Britain, including recycling collection bags from some UK local councils.

In those areas people had been separating their plastics for council collection to be recycled, but they were simply being dumped in the Far East.

Prompted by the programme I submitted some ‘freedom of information’ questions to the States to find out where our recyclates go.

Within the 20 working day limit (just) the reply pinged into my inbox.

It was concise but comprehensive and stated that all of our recyclates are dealt with at plants in the UK – which is very comforting.

My final question – whether measures were in place to monitor these arrangements – prompted an interesting reply.

Other than glass and food waste, all of our recyclates are processed by the Guernsey Recycling Group, which exports them to a number of facilities in the UK. GRG is happy to provide Guernsey Waste with full details of these facilities, but because of commercial confidentiality does not want them released to the public. Fair enough.

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Well, I assume GRG doesn’t want to release the details. The reply actually says that it has ‘not given consent’ for their release, and as with most replies what is not said is often very interesting.

In this case, the reply makes no mention of whether Guernsey Waste has actually asked for the information, or whether it has a procedure for regularly monitoring where our recylcates end up.

OK, I know I did not actually ask that particular question, but if they proactively monitor it I would have thought they would have volunteered the fact since it would be very positive PR for them.

In which case, we are left wondering if they have ever, or plan to ever, actually monitor where our recyclates end up.

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Perhaps I am unfairly over-analysing their reply. Perhaps not.

Not wanting to end negatively, I do thank the staff for their time in replying to my question in the detail they did.

We are all aware of the problems with plastic and a lot of the focus has been on reducing the use of single-use plastic bags.

We also have to be cautious and appreciate that if we aren’t careful, the alternatives to single-use plastics could be even more damaging.

For instance, I have a little business and last year needed some bags when I attended an event. Being environmentally minded I opted to ‘do the right thing’, buying paper bags rather than plastic bags.

Having done a little research, I now know this may not have been the right decision.

There is an environmental impact in producing any bag, and the higher the impact, the more times the bag needs to be used to offset the impact compared with using a number of single-use bags.

A 2018 study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency analysed all of the environmental impacts of various types of bags, comparing them with the ordinary supermarket single-use bag to calculate how many times a reusable bag needs to be reused to offset its full environmental costs.

The results surprised me.

. The normal, reusable plastic ‘bag-for-life’ needs to be used 45 times.

. For a bag-for-life made of mixed materials, the number rises to 870 times.

. A paper bag needs to be used 43 times

. A cotton bag needs to be used 7,100 times.

In essence, what the report established was that unless the paper bags I had been handing out were each reused 43 times, the environmental impact would have been lower had I opted for single-use plastic bags.

It is quite possible that by trying to ‘do the right thing’ in not using plastic bags, I may actually have done more environmental harm.

Another aspect of concern is that bags-for-life actually use more plastic than single-use bags and people are still buying lots rather than reusing them.

Tesco admitted to The Times last year that it used more plastic in its bags-for-life in the period January to July than in the single-use bags for the whole of the previous year.

Iceland (the shop, not the country) has confirmed a similar situation.

I am not suggesting that we revert to loads of single-use plastic bags, but I recognise that the alternatives are not necessarily better for the environment.

The conclusions I have drawn from these reports are:

1. This subject is not a simple as some make it seem.

2. Whatever type of bag you use, use it as many times as possible.

3. Avoid bags with printing on them – this increases the environmental impact of the bag.

4. Finally, where practical, reuse the bag as a bin liner.

5. Never let a bag become litter.

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