Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"Plastic Bags are a Distraction" - Monbiot

by Sami Grover, Carrboro, NC, USA

Reusable bags give feel-good factor without real change

George Monbiot is at it again. Not content with shooting down the great green hopes for biochar, or taking on environmentalists' affinity to alternative medicines, the always thought-provoking Mr Monbiot is now challenging that most ubiquitous of treehugging obsessions - the plastic bag. For many greenies, getting a reusable bag may be one of the first steps we take toward a lighter footprint but, argues Mr Monbiot, the current focus on this issue is not only ineffective, it may be downright counterproductive. Read on to find out why.

In his regular column over at The Guardian, Monbiot argues that for many the reusable bag has become nothing more than a fashion accessory - an opportunity to tout your green credentials without really having to make any significant changes to your lifestyle:
As Oscar Wilde said: "Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly." These bags for life were discarded with all the other eco-bling as soon as something newer came along. But they served their purpose: they permitted the rich and famous to telegraph their green credentials while still running the Aga, the Range Rover, the yacht and the second and third homes in far-flung parts of the world. By buying the bag, they could tick another box: now, among their other attributes, they were environmentally conscious.

I was reminded of this when I saw the British government's new green initiative, the "Get a bag habit" campaign to encourage reuse of bags, which it launched yesterday with the British Retail Consortium. Not just because the slogan almost rivals Hindmarch's for naffness, but also because it highlights our fetishisation of the plastic bag as the root of all environmental evil.

I should be clear - Monbiot is not arguing that we should return to plastic bags - they are indeed an environmental scourge, and a ridiculous waste of resources. But given the amount of trash we create in general, and given that trash is only one of the environmental challenges we face, there is a danger that we get lost in promoting high-profile, feel-good cosmetic changes while the world around us burns. I must say I couldn't agree more.

So by all means, let's keep reusing our reusable bags - but let's not kid ourselves that this is anywhere near enough to halt the converging crises of resource depletion and climate change that are threatening to throw a very real spanner in our collective works. And next time we want to spend political capital and personal energy on a campaign - let's think long and hard about a plastic bag ban is the most important thing on our agenda.