Swallowing Camels image

Swallowing Camels

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced (to some fanfare) that from 2015 supermarkets will be made to charge customers 5p for plastic bags. This announcement by Nick Clegg attracted a lot more news coverage than his comments about parliamentarians who opposed same-sex marriage being ‘dinosaurs’ or his own opposition to married tax allowance. We steer away from party political comment on Think (Andrew got a bit of a pasting when he once tried it), and taking a pop at the Liberal Democrats feels too much like shooting fish in a barrel to be sporting anyway, but the priorities revealed by the DPM were interesting.

A couple of days after the announcement of the plastic bag charge I was in the car and happened to catch the BBC Radio 4 program, ‘More or Less’, which runs the numbers on statistical claims and was doing a plastic bag analysis. The plastic bag was invented in 1957 as a sandwich bag and has become ubiquitous. Nick Clegg offered the observation that we, “Might use them for 20 minutes walking back from the shops, but they take a thousand years to degrade.” How true, asked ‘More or Less’, was this thousand year claim?

A lot comes down to the environment in which the bags are found. Apparently in the dry, airless, sunless, conditions of a landfill even hotdogs have been found intact after 25 years, so it would be expected that plastic bags could indeed last a very long time. However, there is no actual evidence of the thousand year claim, and the environmental impact of plastic bags might not be quite so large as imagined.

A 2005 study by the Environment Agency calculated the quantity of greenhouse gas production associated with plastic bags and found that their manufacture, right the way from extracting oil from the ground, through to use and final disposal, has a surprisingly small impact. A paper bag would need to be used three times in order to have a smaller environmental impact than a plastic bag, while a ‘bag for life’ would need to be used four times, and a cotton bag a whopping 130 times. And this is assuming the plastic bag is used only once; in reality more than 75% of plastic bags are reused. For example, I use ours for cleaning up after our dogs, and would have to buy bags for this task if the supermarkets didn’t supply them with our shopping. Moreover, if plastic bags go to landfill it is better if they do not degrade anyway, as this only releases further pollutants into the environment.

The real issue, concluded ‘More or Less’, is how you get to the supermarket, as one litre of petrol weighs as much as 50-100 plastic bags – which gives a good indication of how much fossil fuel goes into producing the bags, compared with powering your car.

Hearing this statistical assessment made me rather more sceptical about the government’s plans than I had previously been. In comparison with changes taking place in the way that marriage is defined and recognised it feels rather like straining at gnats while swallowing camels – which is probably a good metaphor for the entire political process in the ‘advanced democracies’. It is party conference season in the UK and I find myself less and less impressed by the whole rigmarole. I enjoy politics, I urge my congregation to vote at elections, and I have worked hard at trying to keep British cynicism about politics and politicians at bay, but it is getting harder to be enthusiastic. And this is without even beginning to comment on the way something as significant as the Syrian situation has been handled by politicians, European and American.

A few years ago Wayne Grudem published his Politics According to the Bible. I gave this some pretty rough reviews at the time, and still find it about as digestible as a camel, but I’ve just looked up what he has to say about plastic bags.

If my local government would prohibit grocery stores from providing plastic bags…it would force me to use paper bags. This deprives me of my liberty to choose which kind of bag I want. But I cannot carry nearly as many paper bags as plastic bags from the car to my house, because the paper bags break and tear more easily. Therefore every trip to the grocery store will now require some additional trips between the car and the house, and incremental loss of human liberty for every citizen. The paper bags also take more storage room and don’t work as well for certain other tasks, so there is another small loss of liberty. Perhaps some people think this insignificant, and perhaps others think there is an environmental benefit that comes from avoiding plastic bags, and that is worth the price of depriving the citizens a small amount of liberty in this way. I do not. But my point is simply to note that my freedom to use my time as I wish has been eroded a bit, and no one seems to notice that this has happened.

In the margin next to this paragraph is a scribbled, ‘O good grief!’ – my reaction at the time to what reads like a rather silly and petulant attitude. But perhaps Grudem wasn’t being only silly and petulant. When getting rid of plastic bags is accorded greater political significance than the preservation of marriage, perhaps it is not only personal liberty that is at stake. Perhaps (to misquote a phrase) we have eaten so much cake we no longer know what bread looks like. Perhaps we are straining at gnats while attempting to eat camels. Or, as the Teacher might say about 21st century politics, “All is vanity and a striving after wind.”

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