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The “national flower” of Namibia blooms again!

todayFebruary 27, 2024 6 1

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Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me that, after an immediate rush to use paper shopping bags when we started paying for plastic shopping bags, there has been a gradual slide away from the greener option back to plastic shopping bags. And it seems it’s not just here…in California, the first US state to impose tax and restrictions on single-use platic shopping bags, there has been a “backlash” – last year there was more single-use plastic collected in that state than the previous 5 years!

Here’s the “mea culpa” moment…I’ve noticed that I’ve been slack with this rather simple contribution to saving the planet. I’ve been rather good at re-using cloth shopping bags or, if possible, paper bags because I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment behind it while not a hard-core “tree-hugger”. But recently I’ve actually caught myself on occasion just paying for plastic bags – there are always a number of ready excuses for doing so – I’m not going to bore you with them, because that might expose you to the other crap that goes on in my head and that’s not something anyone deserves. But it is a thing…and it’s sad that there has been a gradual slide away from the “greener” option, towards the more convenient, “lazy” option. Unfortunate, but rather predictable, as it was the drive towards “easy” and “convenient” which landed us (and the planet) in the dire situation we are in. But is a platic bag really such a big deal? Well, yes, it is…

Plastic bags decompose slowly, causing them to linger in landfills. But how long does a plastic bag really stick around?
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, it takes about 1000 years (10 centuries) for a bag to “decompose.” But that’s a bit of a misnomer and the reason is simple – because most microorganisms can’t eat plastic, it winds up photodegrading from ultraviolet radiation. Here in Namibia the sun is harsh enough that it destroys everything exposed to it for any lenth of time. But, even when bags disintegrate, they leave behind microplastics that can continue to have an adverse effect on the environment. So an ugly, visible problem (that’s why the ubiquitous plastic bag is often referred to as “Namibia’s national flower”)  becomes an invisible, microscopic problem. And its a real case of “out of sight, out of mind”…
While 1000 years sounds long, it is, of course, an estimate. Plastic bags have only been around since the 1950s or so, meaning that civilization has never actually observed a real-time decomposition of the material. Instead, scientists use respirometry tests in which materials are placed in aerated soil filled with microbes, and then measure the CO2 the microbes produce as they break down the material. If it’s an organic substance like food waste, CO2 levels rise, and that gives scientists an estimate of its decomposition rate. But plastic bags don’t result in any CO2 production, meaning microbes are not eating them—the bags are just sitting there, defiantly intact. And in landfills, the Namibian sun does not even reach them. If plastic bags aren’t exposed to ultraviolet radiation because they’re buried in a landfill, they’ll be around for a very long time.
The environmental cost of bags isn’t limited to their discarding. Making bags requires fossil fuels—by one estimate, 12 million barrels of oil annually. And once a bag ends its useful life in the hands of consumers, it can enter the wildlife food web. Animals like birds and fish eat the plastic, which accumulates along the food chain. So is a cloth bag better?
While limiting use of plastic bags is a good idea, grabbing a cloth bag may not be the planet-saving habit you think it is. The cloth totes still have a significant carbon footprint that require thousands of uses to offset. A better idea is to reuse whatever bags you already have at home, cloth or plastic, to do your heavy lifting. But yes, cloth bags from recycled material is better, but paper is still best…the fact that it starts deteriorating after a few shopping trips is exactly why we SHOULD use them…they are destructible…and that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? OK rant over…I solemnly undertake to do the right thing (again)…and I hope you’ll join me if you’ve been slacking…

Written by: Deon v Rensburg

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