A number of people have spoken to me about making Morpeth a ‘plastic bag-free’ town – following the lead of places like Modbury.
About 17.5 million plastic carrier bags are used worldwide each year, with the majority ending up on landfill sites. Discarded plastic carrier bags block gutters and drains, choke farm animals and marine wildlife and pollute the soil as they gradually break down. Plastic bags clogging the drain network was a contributing factor to the recent floods in Mumbhai (formerly Bombay).
A plastic carrier bag can take between 500 to 1000 years to break down and many of the ‘degradable’ bags (eg photo-degradable) actually only breakdown to inert plastic dust.
Unlike Modbury, neither the Town nor the Borough Council can actually ban the use of plastic bags – and while certain stores are promoting “bags for life” as an alternative to a plastic bag, the chain stores are very unlikely to adopt ‘local Morpeth’ practice, especially when they use plastic bags for advertising.
However consumer and peer pressure can be very powerful. Both Councils can encourage shoppers refuse plastic bags and help traders provide alternatives.
A starting point is to make the Wednesday Market plastic bag free. The two Councils are planning to provide 3-4 months-worth of both re-usable cotton or sisal bags and genuinely biodegradable bags (made entirely from cornstarch and fully compostable) to market traders from February. Whether the initiative expands or carries on after that will depend heavily on the response from shoppers, market traders and shopkeepers.
From a Green point of view, the immediate impact of reusable shopping bags is fairly minor - removing plastic bags from our lives won't make us a sustainable culture anymore than saving the polar bear will stop global warming - but it is a powerful symbol. The disposable plastic bag is the icon of our unsustainable lifestyles. Campaigns to ban them help people to start questioning how and where products are made, how they are transported and where they go when we're finished with them. It makes us look at all consumer goods in a different light.