Alone, I can do nothing. But if all of us banish the bags, we’ll make a REAL differenceBy JOHN HUMPHRYS- More by this author » Last updated at 00:19am on 27th February 2008
At first sight, there is no obvious connection between the Siberian tiger, the snows of Kilimanjaro and a plastic bag.
Two of them inspire awe. Even if we never see a tiger in the wild or – as I have been lucky enough to do – climb to the top of Africa‘s highest mountain and touch the ice cap, we feel our lives are somehow enriched by their existence.
But the plastic bag? At best, it is occasionally convenient. At worst, it is a serious threat to the environment. And that is the link: the environment.
A British family on their weekly shop – but their bags could be killing our wildlife
All three of them are symbols. But in one vital respect the plastic bag is the most powerful of the three. Let me explain why.
The Siberian tiger – perhaps the most awesome predator on the planet – once freely roamed the forests of north- eastern China, the Korean peninsula, Mongolia and Russia.
Today, there may be as few as 350 left in one small corner of south-eastern Russia. The battle for its survival may well be lost.
And so it is with Kilimanjaro. There is no more magnificent image on the African continent than its brilliant white peak rising 20,000ft above the sun-scorched plains.
But the ice cap is melting at such a rate that most scientists believe it will have disappeared in little more than ten years. A few decades of global warming will have destroyed what was created 11,000 years ago.
Now let us turn to the ravages of the plastic bag. The first and most obvious point is that they are everywhere.
No one knows for sure how many are given away by shops and supermarkets around the world, but it has been calculated at about a trillion – or a million a minute.
In these small islands alone it is a staggering 13 billion every year.
We use them once or, perhaps, twice when we line our kitchen bins with them. The vast majority are simply thrown away.
You find them stuck in the trees and bushes of your local park, blown across the playground of your local school, clogging the gutters of your local High
Street or shoved into landfill sites – official and unofficial holes in the ground. And you cannot escape from them.
I have a holiday home in the unspoiled Peloponnese, the loveliest corner of Europe. From my balcony, we are sometimes lucky enough to be able to watch dolphins playing in the waters of the bay.
The beaches are free of pollution – except for plastic bags.
Given certain wind and tides, the coastline can be disfigured overnight by tons of plastic waste, forming a foul necklace around every bay for miles.
Almost all of it comes from plastic bags, many of which have been in the sea for years.
They are torn and shredded, but the plastic of most of them is virtually indestructible.
At least the beaches can be cleaned, the plastic painstakingly plucked from them. You cannot do that to the sea.
The hidden menace of old plastic bags is far greater than the visible one.
They are swallowed by marine life from the Arctic to the Antarctic – mammals and birds.
Marine conservationists reckon that they kill 100,000 whales, seals, dolphins and turtles every year.
A whale washed up on a beach in France had dozens of plastic bags tangled in its intestines – including two from British supermarkets.
So the plastic bag kills precious wildlife as surely as the environmental vandals who fell the forests of Asia or slaughter tigers to sell their body parts to be used in imaginary “cures”.
They also play their pernicious part in the global warming that is melting the ice cap of Kilimanjaro and represents a real threat to the survival of our planet.
Man-made global warming is predominantly the result of carbon released into the atmosphere – mostly from oil. And guess what is needed to make every single plastic bag. Oil.
So far, so bad: three deeply depressing symbols of the way we are managing to foul up this beautiful world of ours.
But when I wrote at the start of this article that plastic bags are the most powerful symbol, I meant it in a hopeful way.
A discarded piece of filthy old plastic does not exactly provide the emotional jolt of a magnificent animal such as the Siberian tiger or a breathtaking mountain peak in Africa, but it can deliver a message that is even more important.
It can tell us that our destiny is in our own hands. We can do something.
There is nothing, realistically, that you and I can do to stop an unscrupulous logger felling trees in an Asian forest or a hunter shooting a tiger.
As for global warming, if you are like me you feel – in the language of the psychiatrist’s couch – somewhat conflicted.
We know it matters. We know we should be doing something.
But we’re not absolutely sure what. And, more to the point, we’re even less sure that we can make any real difference.
I’ve always been pretty smug about my environmental credentials and I preach the message of recycling with all the fervour of a born-again Southern Baptist preaching the evils of drink to a sozzled down-and-out – and, yes, I do practise what I preach.
Every last scrap of potato peel ends up in the compost.
I even recycle cans I find lying in the street outside my house. And I often wander around the office at 4.30am switching off computers and television monitors.
In short, as far as many of my colleagues and friends are concerned, I’m a pain in the backside.
I justify it by claiming that at least I’m doing my bit to help save the planet.
But observant readers will have spotted a gaping hole in my green credentials.
I have a holiday home in Greece. Which means flying and lots of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
I justify it on the basis that I have family (including grandchildren) living in Greece and if I did not go to see them, they would all fly here.
But I’m not sure that’s entirely convincing if I really want to save the planet single-handed.
The point is, of course, that I can’t. And neither can you. But if enough of us try, we can make a real difference – which takes us back to plastic bags.
We don’t need them. When I go to buy fruit and veg from my local market, I take an old rucksack and everything gets dumped in it.
But I haven’t done as much as Rebecca Hoskins. She is known as the bag lady of Modbury, a small town in Devon which is now mercifully free of plastic bags thanks to her efforts.
She launched a campaign after seeing the deaths of albatross chicks that had eaten plastic, and persuaded 43 traders in the town to stop giving them away.
And it worked. Anyone walking the streets of Modbury with a plastic bag these days is pointed at as though they have the plague.
And why not? The message is getting through. Almost 100 towns and cities in Britain are considering a ban on free plastic bags.
All 33 London councils have voted for legislation to stop supermarkets giving them away.
From Ireland to Australia to Zanzibar, governments are voting against them. It hasn’t happened here – yet. But the supermarkets are feeling the pressure.
They are introducing more bio-degradable bags and doing more to encourage us to re-use bags or bring our own. It’s a start.
In the end, this is about more than plastic bags – or tigers or ice caps. In some ways, they are the equivalent of the canary in the coal-mine falling off its perch.
If the miners fail to notice, they will pay the price.
But, just for a change, let’s take a more optimistic approach and give the final word to Shakespeare. In Julius Caesar, he wrote: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
If we can deal with the tide of plastic bags, who knows what else we can do?
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- Kilimanjaro Snow May Vanish In 20 Years (news.sky.com)
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- Where does Europe’s waste go? (loomnie.com)