Thursday, 23 February 2012

Plastic shopping bags forever

No need to guess what this rubbish is mostly made of -- plastic materials of course, mostly shopping bags. Picture taken at the beach in Parang, Jose Panganiban, Camarines Norte. - MWBuzzpic by ARNEL P HERNANDEZ

LONG TIME AGO when plastic shopping bags were yet to be invented, people hauled off foodstuff from markets and stores in various fashions. 

Mothers who came from the market carried fresh produce that included fruits and veggies, meat and fish in baskets made of thin strips of wild vines, and bayongs, which were fashioned from dried leaves of “buri”, a wild palm.

On the other hand, those who bought dried goods like rice, salt and canned goods had stuffed them in wide brown paper bags with carrying handles, and in the usual smaller paper packets popularly known those days as “supot” popularized by Chinese stores around town. 

But brown paper bags and “supot” were also popular among market stalls to take care of many food items from corn and mungo, fruits and vegetables, to common spices such as garlic, onions and a lot more. Every stall had enough stock of brown paper bags that dangled at one side of the wall.

Since most of the townspeople did not have refrigerators, they only bought foodstuff that could be consumed in a day or two, thus requiring them to visit the public market three or five times during the week to beef up family provisions. 

Sundays, usually, would be the grand day for many families as the menu for the day’s special lunch would include beef, chicken and fish, alongside fruits such as sweet bananas and papaya. 

On Sundays, my mom saw to it that we had beef for lunch, either as “nilaga” (boiled) or “sinigang” (with sour flavoring) along with our favorite pechay and potato or yam cubes.

A common type of grocery bags issued by 
shops, public markets and supermarkets.
I remember Wigan, my three-year-old, bulky trained pet dog, which would carry home in his mouth a basket laden with foodstuff while I shouldered five to six “gantas” (about 12kg) of rice in that sturdy, brown paper bag which mother and I bought at the town market a kilometer or two away from where we lived.
Whenever he did an errand for me, such as carrying foodstuff from the market, Wigan would prefer cruising by the seashore on his way home so as to avoid the bully, dirty dogs that lumbered along our barrio’s sandy pebbled road, and thus save itself and our lunch food from trouble. 

Those days, people just walked to reach their destinations around town. In our community of Mambulao (Jose Panganiban, in Camarines Norte), tricycles, like plastic bags, were unheard of.
The pedicabs materialized only at our place towards the late 60s when I was already in the university pursuing an accounting degree.

In my youth, our environment was free of discarded wastes that included brown paper bags and “supot” as they could easily be disposed off, either by burning them in the backyard or by simply dumping them in a pit. 

Once this sizeable hole-in-the-ground was filled with rubbish, we simply covered it with soil. In matter of five to six months, compost was produced which then served as fertilizers for our modest veggie garden in the backyard. 

Those days, we did not have the so-called environmental pollution like we are experiencing today, courtesy of indiscriminately discarded plastic shopping bags and other plastic-based packaging materials.

Paper bags and “supot” were conveniently disposed off under the ground via the pit, and would become humus over time, being biodegradable materials.

It short, the keyword is “biodegradable”, which simply refers to materials that will decompose in the natural environment. And people of long ago were thankful that the bags that they had been used to carrying their stuff were environment-friendly.

  A typical landfill outside Metro Manila where plastic wastes  dominate the scene

Well, unlike the plastic grocery bags that we know of these days, which are now causing untold headaches and costs to almost all local governments and environmental agencies in the Philippines.

Disposed off wholesale, the non-biodegradable plastic bags in all forms – grocery/shopping bags, carrying bags or simply handy food container (plastic packets) – alongside the notorious take-away Styrofoam food packs, could clog up city drainage systems, sewer pipes and canals resulting in street floods during heavy rains.

Every time Metro Manila’s 17 contiguous cities were hit by a typhoon, or even by a heavy downpour, the city roads immediately flooded due to blocked drainage systems. Almost with certainty, the culprit would be plastic materials that had accumulated over the recent days or weeks.

Of course, these oil-based plastic materials do not only end up in city sewers but also in landfills outside the metropolis. Under the ground, they are usually “mummified”, which means that they stay as plastic for all time. This is because of the nature of their design. Used as durable packaging, most plastics are destined not to compost or biodegrade.

One study said that an ordinary plastic material such as the “plastik supot” could stay intact even underground for at least 50 years. So, you could just imagine the longevity of millions of big and small plastic bags now buried in many landfills across the country. 

Incinerating them will not help at all. Once burned, plastic materials will release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Should plastics ever decompose, they would release into the atmosphere the methane gas embedded in them, which causes greenhouse warming. 

 DISCARDED plastic materials usually end up in waterways like creeks and drainage canals

Given no viable storing options, some local authorities have come up with the idea of “going backwards” in a bid to start saving their environment. That is, to reintroduce the use of brown paper bags and other eco-friendly packaging that were then the fashion until the 60s.

Some enterprises in the US are now exploring the use of tetra packs, which are biodegradable, to package distilled, purified and mineral water as the best way to do away with the use of plastic bottles. 

All over the world, drinking water in plastic packaging is produced in million units everyday as it is also being consumed in million units daily. Not to mention fruit juices packed in various sizes of plastic bottles.

To environmentalists and agencies dealing with environmental refuse, being confronted with mountains of discarded plastic bottles would be a nightmare in terms of logistics and appropriate waste disposal technology.

Not to be outdone with, reputable US supermarkets like Target, Wal-Marts and Whole Foods Markets with headquarters in London, have already begun shifting from throwaway plastic shopping bags to reusable counterparts. 

Their aim is to keep about 500 million plastic bags every year out of the environment, particularly in landfills where they usually end up shortly after being discarded by households.

And in Australia, it was found that some seven billion plastic shopping bags are being used every year, with half of them ending up in landfills. 

With a life span of up to 2,000 years, it’s no longer surprising the damage it could do to landfills and waterways and sea-beds where they are deposited for good as wastes.

Governments around the world are legislating to reduce and eventually eliminate consumption of plastic bags. And many Australian communities are following the lead set by Coles Bay in Tasmania, and Huskisson In New South Wales, in becoming plastic bag-free by using recyclable bags.

The world’s governments are gradually learning that 500 billion plastic bags are used and discarded every year. Every minute, at least one million plastic bags are used and discarded across the globe.

According to Wikipedia, biodegradable plastics are plastics that will decompose in the natural environment. Biodegradation of plastics can be  achieved by enabling micro-organisms in the environment to metabolize the molecular structure of plastic films to produce a soil-like material that is less harmful to the environment.

This is a reusable shopping bag being promoted by Target store chains in the US in a bid to do away with throw-away shopping  bags. It is made from recyclable polypropylene fabric.

They may be composed of either bioplastics, which are plastics whose components are derived from renewable raw materials.

 These are reusable shopping bags that have to be redis-covered by shoppers.
 -- Picture by website

Ecology-wise, however, biodegradable plastics have also a potential disadvantage. Studies have shown that the carbon that is locked up in them is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when they degrade or decompose. This is despite the fact that they are made from natural materials, such as vegetable crop derivatives or animal products. 

It has been noted that biodegradable plastics have proven too costly and limited for general use, such as plastic shopping bags and plastic food packets. 

Studies have also noted that when such plastic materials are dumped into landfills, they can become “mummified” and persist for decades even if they are supposed to be biodegradable.

MY CONTRIBUTION to plastic pollution is substantial. I discard an average of 6 pieces of plastic shopping bags a week, or 24 pieces a month, for a total of 288. It is safe to assume that Port Moresby’s 20,000 expatriates who buy provisions every week contribute to Port Moresby’s environmental pollution with at least 5.78 million bags a year. 

And over this period, Port Moresby’s individual expats also discard an average of 576 pieces of plastic packets – all used to wrap veggies and other fresh foodstuff – o about 11.5 million pieces.
When our contribution to pollution problem is combined with the locals’ share (there are close to 500,000 residents in Port Moresby), the volume could be staggering. And there’s no prospect of seeing them disappear for good.

SO, THE ONLY option for us is to go back to using the good old, ever-reliable brown paper bags (BPBs) and the popular brown paper “supot”. 

When first introduced in the Philippines by the Chinese corner store owners at the turn of the 20th century, (BPBs) and “supot” were nonchalantly accepted by the Filipinos as a matter of course.

Later, shoppers realized they were an invention very convenient for carrying goods. And the habit of using them had developed until they were swept over during the 70s by the notorious plastic shopping bags.

Sometime ago, in a Hollywood movie I happened to watch on HBO, the main character went to a New York City grocery store to buy some stuff. After the storekeeper loaded the items in a brown paper bag, our hero casually wrapped his arms around the foodstuff carrier and walked back home while talking on his cell phone. I surmised using paper bags must have been a long time habit of his.

Well, I am quite impressed. Just to think that the story is set in modern-day New York and not in a distant past.

1 comment:

  1. I guess there are two words which our government officials must focus on making everyone understand, IF they themselves understand: BIO DEGRADABLE and SUSTAINABLE.... Grrr