Tell Jeremy Clarkson he can choke on this – plastic bags are a menace
Here’s a story you should hear more about this year. Whilst filming in Hawaii a film-maker from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, Rebecca Hosking, sailed to a remote island and found a scene of devastation. Hundreds of albatrosses and their chicks, seals, tortoises and even whales and dolphins lay dead or dying on the beach, their stomachs split open and spewing out the plastic junk that they had choked on.
So she returned home to Modbury in Devon and persuaded the town’s shopkeepers to replace free plastic carrier bags with reusable ones. Now 80 towns are planning to follow Modbury’s example and London’s 33 local authorities may ban plastic bags by 2009. The speed of change suggests that it cannot be too long before the UK joins countries as diverse as Ireland, Rwanda and Bangladesh in either banning them or levying a compulsory charge per bag.
Drastically reducing the use of carrier bags is both the ultimate sign of individual consumer power (nobody needs government assistance to resist the temptation to liberally help themselves at the checkout) and an early indicator of how seriously this country will take environmental issues, because there is no counter-argument to seriously cutting the number of bags we get through in this country.
If you want the raw figures, here they are: we use 13 billion a year, of which 5% are recycled and the other 12.4 billion end up in landfill where they may take anything between 400-1000 years to decompose. Alternatively they may flutter about in trees like grotesque butterflies, or float around in the sea until washed ashore onto this island’s beaches, where every mile of coastline is estimated to contain 2000 substantial pieces of plastic rubbish.
Whatever they do, regardless of the ecological issues, they must be the most pointless items currently in mass production. Put anything heavier than Jade Goody’s intellect in them – some of the week’s shopping, perhaps – and they first of all twist around your fingers like some medieval torture appliance and then inevitably split apart just far enough from home to cause a severe logistical headache.
Of course most people use them to get the food from checkout to car and then driveway to door. This is even less justifiable, given that they are then used for a couple of minutes before beginning their millennial death throes. Let’s not start on the oil and other scarce resources needed to make them in the first place.
Somehow a group of lobbyists and libertarians like Jeremy Clarkson has managed to twist public opinion into believing that there is a real scientific debate about whether humans cause climate change. Armchair scientists are proud of their reasoning that the earth must have hot ages as it once had ice ages – and they have very little else to back up their arguments – as if the climatologists might have missed these inconsequential events.
But even in the unlikely event of the scientists having got it completely wrong, doubts about the causes of climate change are in many ways irrelevant: they don’t excuse the need for a rapid re-examination of the way we lead our lives. Maybe ever-increasing numbers of flights will do no harm to the atmosphere. They will nonetheless require an ever-increasing section of the country to be tarmacked over, and more and more people living under flight paths.
I don’t really think the odd car journey spells environmental Armageddon, but it contributes to the congestion that clogs up the roads and then spurs the government on to build more. The recent debates about how to generate electricity, the experts seem to agree, wouldn’t be so pressing if people just used less electricity in the first place.
Passing the buck isn’t an option. The choices we all make individually add up to a much more destructive whole. Also, please spare the old canard about China’s progress negating any effort we make in Europe. Since when was the Chinese government the moral compass and guiding light of the world? It’s just a get-out clause for the lazy.
The debates around climate change are nearly always much more complex than the opposing sides of environmentalists and vested interests will admit. For example, food flown in from across the world may have an environmental cost but it also contributes to greater wealth for those who grew it.
It is rare for an environmental argument to be as black and white as a massive reduction in the use of plastic bags, so we might as well start here and see how things go. That Hawaiian island is a reminder that everyday decisions may have consequences across the world.