Challenges and Dilemmas in Everyday Life
Few of us get through a day without encountering a plastic bag – taking or refusing one at a shop, reusing one that we had taken previously, carrying things, passing them on, storing them. Plastic bags are useful for wrapping food and other wet things, lining rubbish bins, and wrapping delicate mater- ials. They are popular because they are ‘functional, lightweight, strong, cheap, and hygienic’ (DSEWPC 2012). In parts of Africa they are even bound together into makeshift footballs, in informal settlements where commercially produced footballs are prohibitively expensive. That popularity has also made plastic bags ubiquitous, in truly staggering numbers. Australians used 3.9 billion bags in 2007 (a reduction from 6 billion in 2002) (DSEWPC 2012). UK estimates are 10 billion bags in 2006 (Edwards and Fry 2011). Before recent bans on plastic bags in China, it was estimated that 3 billion were produced there each day (WorldWatch 2012). It is imposs- ible to know how many are produced worldwide; estimates vary between 500 billion and 1 trillion (1 million million) bags per year. Although some of the arguments here relate to plastic bags more broadly, the particular focus of this chapter is a subset of that category, the single-use plastic bags with integrated handles provided by many supermarkets. Most of these are made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE). They are the ones commonly seen wrapped around sea mammals and birds, in visuals associated with campaigns against the plastic bag (e.g. www.banthebag.com.au). Scaled up, the prevalence of plastic waste does indeed contribute to significant problems in waste disposal, threats to wildlife and fossil fuel use. But it sometimes seems that this mundane bit of material culture gets more than its fair share of environmental attention precisely because it is constantly in our faces (and our kitchen cupboards).
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