To ban or not to ban plastic bags

Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, which comes from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource.

They are ubiquitous. Between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

However, less than 1 percent of the bags are recycled because it costs more to recycle a bag than to produce a new one. It costs $4,000 to process and recycle a ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold for $32.

If the economics don’t work, recycling efforts don’t work.

Cloth bag
We can save six plastic bags a week if we use a cloth bag. That’s 24 plastic bags a month, 288 plastic bags a year and 22,176 plastic bags in an average lifetime. If just one out of every five people in our country did this we would save 1,330,560,000,000 plastic bags over our life time.

There’s another reason why plastic bags should be banned. Plastic bags take between 20 and 1,000 years to break down in the environment. Even when they do break down they are not really gone. Plastic bags do not biodegrade rather, they photodegrade.

Top discards
So it doesn’t come as a surprise that plastic bags are the top discards collected in Philippine waters.

A discards survey in Manila Bay found that plastic bags comprised 51.4 percent of the flotsam in 2006 and 27.7 percent in 2010, according to the EcoWaste Coalition, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and Greenpeace. Plastics in general, including plastic bags, made up 77 percent of the discards in 2006 and 76 percent in 2010.

In Laguna de Bay, plastic bags accounted for the biggest group of discards at 23 percent, according to a survey in September 2011.

LGUs support ban
Recognizing the threats posed by plastic bags to the environment, a growing number of municipalities and cities are now implementing ordinances aimed at reducing the use of the bags.

They include the following:
Metro Manila: Muntinlupa, Las Piñas, Makati, Pasay and  Pasig
Antipolo City
Laguna: Biñan, Calamba City, Calauan, Los Baños, Luisiana, Paete, Kalayaan and Sta. Cruz
Cavite: Carmona and Imus
Quezon: Infanta and Lucban
Batangas City
Burgos, Pangasinan
Odiongan, Romblon
Sta. Barbara, Iloilo

The league of 27 municipalities of Nueva Ecija also signed a resolution declaring a ban on the use of plastic bags.

Subic Bay Freeport is the latest addition to the list.

Muntinlupa City reaped the benefit of banning not only plastic bags but also polysterene, commonly known as Styrofoam (a brand name) when a tropical storm struck last year. With its waterways free from plastic bags and Styrofoam debris, the city was flood-free despite the heavy rains brought by Tropical Storm “Falcon.”

The Metro Manila Development Authority, thus, strongly encourages local government units to adopt similar strong measures like what Muntinlupa has done.

For its part, the Laguna Lake Development Authority has issued Resolution No. 406 requiring local government units in the Laguna de Bay region to pass and implement an ordinance banning the use and distribution of thin-film, single-use, carry-out and nonbiodegradable plastic bags.

More countries are also banning the use of plastic bags:

Bangladesh was the first country to impose a nationwide ban on plastic bags that led to  jute exports increasing by up to 70 percent.
Ireland introduced a “plastax” of 15 cents (now 22 cents) on single-use carrier bags. Plastic-bag use dropped by 95 percent.
Other countries include China, India (Himachal Pradesh), Britain (Modbury), South Africa, Rwanda and the United States (San Francisco).

Marine life choked
A United Nations official has called for worldwide ban on plastic bags. “Single-use plastic bags which choke marine life should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Program. “There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.”

The European Union also supports a ban on plastic shopping bags. “Fifty years ago, the single-use plastic bag was almost unheard of. Now we use them for a few minutes and they pollute our environment for decades,” said EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik. “That’s why we are looking at all the options, including a Europe-wide ban on plastic carrier bags.”

Misleading comparison
Local ordinances banning plastic bags do not stipulate the use of paper bags. In fact, it promotes the use of reusable containers.

Plastic bags have a total carbon footprint of about six kilos of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilo of plastic. Paper’s carbon footprint is nearly one kilo of  CO2 per kilo of paper. It’s true that unabated deforestation causes floods.

But excessive rains and unpredictable climate patterns are the effects of global warming caused mostly by burning fossil fuel. And after the inundation, we see tons of used plastic bags littered all around, whose recycling and reprocessing should have long been enforced as a moral responsibility.

Reusable bags have lower environmental impact than all of the single-use bags, including both conventional HDPE bags and degradable bags.

Filipino ingenuity comes to the fore in these critical times with the Bayong Development Project. The project sees the bayong as the focus of a sustainable livelihood program with the two-fold benefit of boosting the economy and diminishing ecological imbalance.

Why the bayong? Natural and renewable resources like pandan, buri, sabutan, romblon and abaca abound in the Philippine countryside and do not entail huge carbon emissions in their harvest, processing and production.
In addition, bayong weaving is part of our cultural heritage. With the global concern over the proliferation of nonbiodegradable packaging, it exhibits potential for income and employment generation.

Since bayong weaving is labor-intensive, expanding demand for the product is seen to unleash its potential for massive employment. The domestic market can be protected from the influx of imported fabric bags from China. It is estimated that if every family above the poverty threshold buys a bayong at P100 a year, the domestic demand shall reach P1.3 billion annually.

It is further estimated that 40 percent of the total or P520 million will redound to the labor sector. Imagine how the amounts double if each family buys two bayongs, instead of one; one for the wet market, another for dry goods.

Another plus factor for bayong production is the absence of rural-urban bias, and gender or age bias. While the rural areas would supply the resources, the urban areas would serve as production centers. With a minimal investment and low technology, anyone can be a small entrepreneur. A farmer can get incentives to plant the required materials from the growing demand for bayong.

Let’s impress on everyone our duty to protect the environment and our own health from the hazards of plastics. Together, let us keep our economy afloat by patronizing our local resources and talents. “Cut down on the use of plastic! Use bayong!”

By: Sonia S. Mendoza

(First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Sunday Edition, Opinion Section: Talk of the Town, April 1, 2012 p. A-14)