Can we stop using plastic bags?

by Ethos | Tribune de Genève| February 12, 2008

Shopping at my Geneva neighborhood Coop, I often feel like the odd person out as I march in with a small backpack strapped to my shoulders. Sure, there are a few old ladies with their shopping caddies and occasionally I see men carrying a straw bag, Provençal-style, to gather the household groceries. Mostly though, I see people walk into the shop with nothing to cart away their purchases. They use plastic bags provided by the supermarket at no cost.

In France, I notice that many grocery stores no longer provide these bags, period. Elsewhere, they charge a fee for them. In 2002, Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags of about 40 centimes. Within weeks, The New York Times reported, the use of such bags dropped by 94 percent and carrying them became as socially unacceptable as not cleaning up after one’s dog. (In my neighbourhood, judging by all the dog droppings befouling the sidewalks, wantonly ignoring the mess your animal leaves behind appears to be more socially acceptable than it should be.)

What happened in Ireland is that people very sensibly began using cloth bags, satchels, rucksacks, shopping bags and caddies, all of the reusable. As of last month, 42 billion plastic bags were used worldwide, a number that increases by a million every minute, according to reusablebags.com. Many of these bags end up in garbage dumps or in the ocean, where they have become a hazard to marine life. They only account for a small percentage of the stuff in landfills but because they are not biodegradable they remain in the environment virtually forever.

The problem in Geneva is that plastic bags, like much of the canton’s garbage, are burned in an incinerator dating from the 1960s, when recycling was a little-known concept. This causes greenhouse gas emissions and generally seems to be a regressive way of dealing with waste. Ironically, because Genevans are recycling more, the volume of waste going to the incinerator is insufficient for the plant to operate at optimum capacity. So the canton is having to import rubbish from other countries.

This may be why there isn’t a stronger push in Geneva to charge for plastic bags. It may also explain the lack of progress on recycling of other plastic products. So many food products at the Coop and Migros (Switzerland’s two main supermarket chains) are bubble-packed, yet it seems very difficult to recycle the containers.

Confusingly marked packaging often says it should be thrown in the garbage even when the plastic carries a recycling symbol – the triangle of arrows. While the Coop has bins for PEP bottles and yogurt containers, it has no facilities to accept all the rest of the plastic containers — or the plastic bags.

It seems hard to believe that 60 years ago we got along fine without these petrochemical products. We can do without plastic bags but maybe the Swiss need an Irish approach to nudge things along.

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