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Fantastic plastic? The fate of the plastic bag

Plastic has become integral to our everyday lives: car components, modern medical equipment and toy parts are all made of plastic. And then there is the plastic bag to help us carry home our shopping from the supermarket. And in the shops everything is wrapped up in plastic, from Italian cured ham to organic apples.

The slogan of the German environmental movement in the 1980s, “Use jute, not plastic”, seems to have got completely forgotten: healthy nutrition is important; climate protection and ecology are a matter of course. But how it is all wrapped up seems to be a minor point.

Plastic – a problem for the environment

Life without plastic products and synthetic components has become unthinkable in many sectors but, unfortunately, plastic has a very long life-span which makes it a problem for the environment. Most types of plastic are not biodegradable. And if you want to recycle plastic, it is very difficult to separate out the individual constituent parts, which means the new material is qualitatively inferior.

As a result, there are now several million tons of plastic waste floating around in the oceans. According to studies carried out by the United Nations in their environmental programme, plastic accounts for some 80 percent of the detritus in the water. People rarely think about this when they buy cheese wrapped up in plastic or purchase a plastic bag at the checkout. After all, plastic bags are practical, and the pre-packed food in the cold cabinet is usually cheaper than the fresh food at the counter. So far, there are not many alternatives to plastic packaging. Experts have pointed out that even paper bags contain chemical substances, and biodegradable plastic bags do not rot away as quickly as hoped.

Deutsche Welle: How climate-damaging are plastic bags?

Making common cause against plastic

So we have to find other ways of removing plastic packaging from our everyday lives. One method that has been introduced in some countries is still unthinkable in Germany: in Australia, India and a number of African states, plastic bags have been banned; Belgium and Ireland tax them which makes them much more expensive. The EU also wants to remove plastic bags from the shopping scene: On average every European uses 200 plastic bags a year and 89 per cent of these bags are used only once.

In Germany both consumers and the government as well as nature conservation organisations are sceptical about introducing a ban: reusable is thought to be a much better alternative. So in future, people may indeed start using jute, not plastic.

July 2011

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