Banning the bag – a discussion with Greenpeace

I was contacted by Greenpeace earlier this week. I’d signed a petition to ban plastic bags, and I think they figured I might be willing to donate and support them financially.

I wasn’t willing to do that, as I focus my financial support in another direction (KidsCan NZ), but I did have an interesting discussion with the Greenpeace representative about plastic waste and the problems it presents for our environment.

The Greenpeace ‘ban the bag’ campaign. A great idea – plastic bags are a huge problem. But Greenpeace is offering no ideas of what to replace bags with!

‘Single use’ bags are really dual-purpose bags

The argument you’ll hear against banning bags in New Zealand is that people re-use them for their rubbish bins, and this is true. Again and again I hear, If we ban the bags, people will just have to buy them instead. ‘Glad’ and other plastic bag makers will be thrilled. Their profits will soar. And ordinary folk will have yet another item they have to buy which once was free.

There are a lot of poor people in this country. The last thing they need is to pay for rubbish bags. I’m a keen environmentalist but I also feel strongly for families struggling to make ends meet.

I asked the Greenpeace Rep on the other end of the phone what suggestions she had for people to use for their rubbish instead of the single use shopping bags. She had none. None at all!

In my view this is pretty pathetic – if you’re going to ask people to change, you MUST offer an option for them to change to. People do love the environment and want to help, but they hate feeling like it’s a choice between feeding their kids and being ‘green’.

It shouldn’t ever be a choice! We should all be able to support our planet and do the right thing – and we should all be able to save money in the process. Being green shouldn’t only be an option for rich people. It should be for everyone.

    ‘Being green shouldn’t just be an option for rich people. It should be achievable for everyone.’

I pointed out that we can’t just put our rubbish in the bin without bagging it. It’ll fly all over the street and make a mess. She agreed. We also can’t go ‘zero waste’ – we’re a family with four kids in a country town on a budget and the plain fact is, we use products that have packaging.

While it’s a good thing to lobby companies to use less packaging and to choose items with less packaging, change will take time in that direction and in the meanwhile, families will continue to produce plastic waste that needs bagging.

So yes, I support Greenpeace’s ban on single-use bags, but realistically I don’t think it will happen. If Greenpeace is not offering any alternative solutions, the problem of plastic bags won’t be solved by their ban even if it works – it’ll just be transferred. Instead of free plastic bag waste we’ll have bought plastic bag waste instead. We might have fewer, but the problem will remain.

I don’t have answers beyond what we already do. We have chickens to use our food waste – and they do this brilliantly. We compost everything the chooks won’t eat. We recycle everything we can. We buy bulk when we can to cut packaging further. We burn most of our cardboard and paper waste in the fireplace for extra heat in winter. So most of the unsorted waste that goes to landfill is plastic.

We have chickens which take care of almost all of our food waste. We compost the rest of our rubbish, recycle or burn it, so virtually the only rubbish going to landfill these days is plastic.

It’s clear to me that society is improving. We’re getting better. But we have a long way to go. And one thing is clear – you can’t successfully ban plastic bags without having a genuine alternative for all people, wealthy and poor, to switch to.

What did people do before plastic rubbish bags?

Have you ever wondered what people did before plastic rubbish bags?

I’ll let you in on a dirty secret of mine – I’m awful when it comes to remembering re-usable bags at the supermarket. So are most Kiwis. We re-use the bags for our rubbish, and figure that gives us a free pass to not bring re-usables to the supermarket.

But plastic bags are a problem. And I wondered what people did before they arrived on the scene. So I did the logical thing. I asked my Mum 🙂

The world before Da Bag

Here are Mum’s answers. Although we can’t burn rubbish any more, some of her tips are great ones, and ideal for getting our rubbish down, even in this day and age when some of the food tastes like plastic!

  • The inside bin (kitchen bin) was lined in newspaper. When full, its contents were thrown into the metal rubbish bin. If she was short on newspaper, she bypassed this step completely, but it meant the bin needed washing more regularly.
  • Peelings and food scraps were put on the compost pile, or given to the chickens. Did you know that if you can’t keep chickens in your suburb or city, keeping quails might be an option? You can even keep them in a small cage on an apartment balcony!
  • Dust and cobwebs etc. from cleaning was wrapped in newspaper (again) and put in the metal rubbish bin. Did you know that dust can be composted or just buried in the garden?
  • Soft drink and milk came in glass bottles (not that Mum ever bought soft drink as it was too expensive!) and were collected at the doorstep and re-used. Most milk cartons and bottles can be recycled. Just rinse them out first!
  • As much as possible was put in the incinerator in the back yard. This included plastic wrappings (which she remembers starting to come in) and cardboard too big to go in the rubbish bin outside. These days, we know better – cardboard and junk mail can give off very toxic chemicals when burned, and the particulates will fall very close to your own chimney i.e. around your house. So unless you’re into poisoning yourself and your family, this is NOT a good idea.

These days, most municipalities have great recycling programmes. While they’re only a small part of the solution, they are a part.

So – ready to quit single use bags?

I’ve been reading up on this issue, and I’m ready to turn over a new leaf and quit my plastic bags for good. I’m going to try my mother’s old technique of just putting rubbish straight in the bin, no bag required. I’ll let you know how it goes.

You might not be as awful as I am when it comes to plastic bags. But if you are, maybe you’d like to think about having a plastic bag free rubbish bin too?

Whatever you decide, wish me luck! 🙂