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Waste Not, Want That

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[Photo of Reusable Bag]
Move over plastics. protecting the environment just got trendier with reusable tote bags.

Leonardo Di Caprio. Brad Pitt. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. More and more celebrities these days are throwing their support behind campaigns to save the environment. Is green really the new black?

Cynics say going green is just a fad but come to think of it, jumping on the bandwagon could prove beneficial to the planet in the long run. Why not do your share in style?

It’s In the Bag

Enter the We Are What We Do (WAWWD) movement. It started in 2004 in London and promotes 100 ordinary actions that will improve one’s self, environment, community, and, believe it or not, relationships. Before long, the WAWWD team published two best-selling books containing the 100 actions, collaborated with Anya Hindmarch in designing a bag—it became “a walking billboard” for the first action “Decline plastic bags wherever possible”—and launched a thousand shopping trips.

True, WAWWD was not the first to say no to plastic bags with much fanfare. But it didn’t just raise awareness on the issue, it also created a phenomenon, which even China couldn’t resist and, therefore, ignore.

It all began as a simple project. The founders of WAWWD met with the fabulous accessories designer and decided to make an affordable, limited edition, It all began as a simple project. The founders of WAWWD met with the fabulous accessories designer and decided to make an affordable, limited edition, canvas tote bag that will come in an exclusive pack with the book Change the World for a Fiver.* The canvas bag was the linchpin of their campaign to rid the United Kingdom of plastic bags. The result? “I am not a plastic bag,” which retails at £5 (US$10). It became the must-have accessory for 2007 and even sparked a frenzy.

Wearewhatwedo.org crashed due to the unexpected demand for the initial online sale of 5,000 packs. Celebrities, like Kiera Knightley, started carrying the bags that were included in the 2007 Oscar goodie bag. Sainsbury’s, Anya Hindmarch stores, and Whole Foods Market sold more than 20,000 bags worldwide. Opportunists on eBay resold their bags for hundreds of dollars. And people who queued up for the bags, online or in line, made for either ecstatic or disgruntled fashionistas.

[Photo of Chinese Celebrities]Green, But Not With Envy

“I am not a plastic bag” reached China in July 2007, five months after its debut in the UK. There was pandemonium in Anya Hindmarch boutiques in Hong Kong and Taipei and some prospective buyers were trampled on and hospitalized during the stampede.

Hong Kong stores refused to open for fear of a riot; the police had to be called in to break up the furious crowd. Following these incidents, the label canceled their Beijing and Shanghai sales. You may ask, “All this trouble for one bag?” Well, it’s not all for nothing.

In a decisive move against “white pollution,” the China State Council posted a notice on the central government website in January 2008 that production, sale, and use of ultra-thin plastic bags (under 0.025-mm thick) will be banned starting 1 June 2008. The notice also declared that supermarkets and shops are forbidden from giving away free plastic bags beginning that day. Thicker plastic bags will still be allowed in stores but these will be sold.

Coinciding with the State Council notice, the whole of Tibet banned plastic bags and will not even sell them to shoppers. China’s largest plastic bag manufacturer, Suiping Huaqiang Plastic Co. Ltd, will no longer produce the 250,000 tons of plastic bags they make each year. With the State Council encouraging people to carry cloth bags, communities in Qinhuangdao City, Suzhou City, Jinan, Zhenjiang, Dalian City, Shenyang, and Nanchong City lost no time showcasing home-made bags and distributing free cloth bags.

People behind the “I am not a plastic bag,” phenomenon, however, can’t take credit for this. China, to begin with, has been battling with plastic trash, known as “white pollution,” for more than two decades. There have even been localized efforts to contain the plastic plague. In 2000, several local governments restricted the use of styrofoam containers. In 2004, Lhasa banned the use of plastic bags. Two years ago, a “No Plastic Bag Day” was held in Hong Kong. (Around 90% of the shoppers in the former British colony brought their own bags that day.) But, the chaotic turnout at last year’s sale was surely hard to miss and maybe, it did hit home.

Fashion Intrigue

[Photo of Volunteers for Environmental Protection Beaureau of the Shunqing District]At first, the furor over a bag, along with the controversies that came with it, may seem ridiculous. Some have criticized the long queues, riots, and resales on eBay that exhibited the worst in consumerism. Others have asked if the manufacturer of the bag in China followed the principles of fair trade or if organic materials were used. Some wanted to know if the carbon footprint of freighting the bags from the mainland was reduced. People who witnessed the commotion also saw that the canvas tote bags, ironically, came out of the stores wrapped in plastic.

It didn’t take long for Chinese knockoffs to appear in the market. (WAWWD initially provided only 30,000 bags then added 20,000 more.) Some of the counterfeit versions even cost more than the genuine item. Naturally, the fakes arrived in the Philippines and were sold for 250 pesos (US$6).

“I am not a plastic bag” set the fashion world on fire. The brickbats notwithstanding, it brought attention back to what ordinary people can do to help clean up the environment. But at the end of the day, the more important thing is really whether or not that little tote bag can save a dying planet.

Flashy vs. Trashy

Take China for example. If each person in the world’s most populous country disposes one plastic bag a day, then more than one billion plastic bags or more than 7,000 tons of waste would be added to landfills. Multiply that by 365 days.

Now, if every Chinese were to use one cloth bag each for one year, China will have 2.5 million tons less garbage to worry about. The keyword with cloth bags is reusable. Using and reusing them may not eliminate all the garbage in the world but it won’t add to it either. Plastic bags, on the other hand, are such a nuisance. People dispose of them easily and without restraint. Paper bags are also out of the question.

Contrary to popular belief, paper bags aren’t better than plastics. Manufacturing plastic requires oil while paper requires tree pulp, consumes more energy, and produces more pollution. Recycling paper still needs tree pulp. Moreover, paper doesn’t necessarily degrade faster than plastic.

There’s nothing more that can be done about paper or plastic bags that have been produced except to reuse them. But if manufacturing paper and plastic is reduced, if not totally banned, then more trees and barrels of oil will be saved, landfills will not grow, and there will be less toxic chemicals to foul up the planet. Manufacturing cloth bags will also use natural resources and, depending on the manner of production, may also contribute to pollution. The difference is cloth bags are durable and made to be reused. They look a lot better too. So would you exchange all the plastic you use for one cloth bag?

One action alone cannot save the planet. But a sustained campaign, especially when done by the billions, could. All the hype surrounding “I am not a plastic bag” may have fizzled out, but the idea behind its creation should never go out of style.

print ed: 05/08


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