Adoration and demonisation: Plastic bags, hysterics and a long romance

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Plastic is bad for our environment, but are we ready to let it go? (Image via reusethisbag.com)

Plastic shopping bags are so deeply integrated into our every day lives that saying goodbye may not be easy, writes Binoy Kampmark.

IT IS TERRIBLE to say goodbye to a function, notably one so close to the domestic aspect of human life. Given modern societies’ obsession with mod cons and the benefit of convenience, lovers of plastic find themselves in a funny spot. There are those who defend plastic with an enthusiasm approximating to fundamentalism. Then there are the all-too-glorious zealots who insist on change as a matter of course.

Australians have begun finding their bearings on the issue of plastic. They are being told about Alexander Parkes, the British inventor who hit upon the first plastic product in 1855.

As Max Veenhuyzen, writing for Good Food reflected:

‘He probably didn’t count on mankind developing a dangerous 448-million-tonne-a-year addiction to the stuff.’ 

In 2002, in a move that would have surprised more pampered, environmentally-inclined states, Bangladesh became the first country to ban the use of thin plastic bags. The reason was simple — an excessive use of such bags had led to a choking of the drainage systems during the frequent spells of flooding.

Australia supplies a particularly eccentric, if unnerving, study of this. Stubborn, irritated and historically devoid of a broader collective conscience on some environmental matters, the famed Australian obsession with being pragmatic sits well with the plastic endeavour. This fundamentalism of utility embraces plastic, supplying the means to mask, seal, hold, deliver and store products of all types.

The campaign against this excrement of oil waged by the ABC in its War on Waste, spearheaded by Craig Reucassel, is an attempt to change such attitudes, though it is simply a more sustained effort from what has come before. Smatterings of righteous effort against the substance can be found in recent years.

In 2011, the Herald Sun noted the efforts of Gina Prendergast, a Melbourne resident who set herself the task of living one year without plastic.

“I hadn’t realised that by purchasing plastic I was also participating in something that was destroying people’s lives — people that live near plastic factories, the diseases they were suffering.”

Over the last few years, Australia’s national broadcaster has donned fatigues against all forms of waste, its latest phase being its #BanTheBag campaign.

Producer Andy Marks is keen to highlight Australia’s lagging in the bag banning business:

‘Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, Italy, Kenya, Morocco and Tanzania are just some on a long list of countries with national plastic bag bans. Australia is not on the list. Not yet.’

The campaign has certainly instilled a certain Boy Scout and Girl Guide enthusiasm amongst the punters, encouraged with Baden-Powell paternalism. Be wary of all that plastic you dispose of as part of the café culture. Join the Responsible Cafes scheme, which encourages customers to come in with their own mug or cup for coffee and be rewarded with a discount as a result.

The anti-plastic warriors jot up each move against the evil entity with a jihadi-like dedication. Individual outlets are praised and promoted for their re-education efforts.

Little Green Corner in Geelong, Victoria, is noted in Good Food as inflicting another “striking” blow against plastic

‘... not least by working with local milk producer Schulz Dairy to have its milk delivered in metal pails that staff then decant into (reusable) glass bottles.’

The language of battle saturates debate and observation. Making the whole issue one of war is dramatic and fits into old patterns of humans needing to be aggressive about attaining goals. Plastic is insentient, but that does not stop people wanting to war against it.

It was, however, the shift by Australian states and retail chains to ban plastic bags at the start of July that has caused some to have fits of sprightly consternation. The fearful have been somewhat amnesiac, forgetting Australians once shopped using paper bags and boxes and stressed the value of composting waste. On 2 July, the first reports of “bag rage” started coming through. Supermarket staff faced punters intent on violence and verbal abuse, complaints forced Woolworths to initially reverse its decision to charge for reusable bags, making them free until 8 July. Untutored shoppers turned up with soiled bags to place their shopping in, essentially turning hygiene into a weapon of protest.

Conservative pundits, those jingoists for plastic bags, argue against any attempt to eradicate, reduce or simply charge for their use and have adopted their own version of political cellophane: to charge customers for reusable bags, or to eliminate plastic altogether, is nothing less than a tyrannical act. Miranda Devine kept it polemically simple — the entire plastic bag ban was premised on “green lies”. Extreme examples made their appearance onto her broadcasts. This inspired a certain picture from journalist Philip Coorey, responding to Devine’s seething sentiment, who promised her a fishing trip in New South Wales where plastic bags were “floating everywhere”.

One Eddie Nahri of western Sydney preferred filling trolleys with groceries, putting them in their entirety into the car, then rolling the items into his flat. This was his contribution to job creation of some daft sort. With the limited awareness of a vigilante, he stubbornly opined that:

“No bag, no problem — we’ll take the trolley.” 

The issue, it seemed, was less about getting his own bags than the principle, bloody-minded and all, of charging customers 15 cents per bag in what was a policy of “legally rorting the public”.  A better act of protest might well have been a bring-your-own carrier, but indignation can soften the cortex. The Australian love affair for plastic bags has yet to cool and will take time to dissolve.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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