In the bag

Strange fruit: the discarded plastic bag has become the ‘national blossom’ of many countries.

Emmanuel Vialet / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com

The Irish call it the ‘national flag’; in South Africa it is known as the ‘national flower’. The plastic bag is surely the most ubiquitous consumer item on earth. Between four and five trillion (million million) were produced in 2002, most ending up in landfill sites.

Many others go airborne. Kenyan farmers complain that the bags get caught in trees; they also lodge in the throats of birds. Beijing authorities spend a fortune cleaning the bags out of gutters.

When the same problem threatened to choke the irrigation channels of snowmelt, crucial for agriculture in the high-altitude desert region of Ladakh in India, the local Ladakhi Women’s Alliance organized a ban. Flood-prone Bangladesh imposed a countrywide ban on plastic bags, also due to clogged drains and channels. South African laws to make bags more durable (and expensive) reduced use by 90 per cent. Australia, India, New Zealand/Aotearoa and the Philippines are among countries intending to follow Ireland’s lead in imposing a tax on bags which has reduced use by 95 per cent.

mag cover This article is from the March 2004 issue of New Internationalist. You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial now »

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