Legends from our own lunchtimes

Monday, April 14, 2008

recycled plastic bags

When I was a kid, plastic bags weren't very common, and I suppose as an extension of that they weren't very economical either.

When one went to the supermarket which in those days were not actually supermarkets, but "grocery shops", and apart from tinned produce and the odd cellophane bag of upmarket sweets, almost nothing came separately packaged.

Actually buying a new plastic bag was not even considered, even if they had been commonly available, to do so would have been considered wasteful.

Fresh food was wrapped in "greaseproof" or "butcher's" paper then in newsprint, before being placed with the other stuff in a cardboard carton or a brown paper bag or in a string bag brought from home for the purpose. When something did come in a plastic bag, it became a treasured item, washed and hung out to dry to be re-used many times before finally wearing out and being discarded.

This process was called "using them again" and much later was given the much more pompous and dishonest tag of "Recycling". Recycling of course originally was coined to describe the process of salvaging the material for re-use in another product made of the same material. Of course there were no plastic garbage liners either. Scraps were either fed to the chooks, burned in backyard incinerators, or wrapped in neat newspaper parcels for deposit in the bin.

With the evolution of "self-service" came the supermarket with its miles of shelves lined with pre-portioned and pre-packaged goods, and with it came the de-valuation of the plastic bag. Where once they were rare they became litter, a nuisance, something to be discarded. What once would have been "wasteful" became "convenient".

They were being produced in such vast quantities that one could even buy them new for a few cents. We had created a product that was cheap, and would last for two thousand years, yet was designed for a single use before disposal.

No one seemed to see the folly of this. People started to believe that by picking up their dog's waste in a second-hand plastic bag they were indeed "recycling". People started to buy new plastic bags for recycling in this manner. Local Authorities started to provide them for free!

Well, thankfully it's all coming to an end. The damage to the environment, and waste created by the relentless march of the plastic bag is such that people are beginning to take notice. Of equal consequence, the fossil fuels on which the plastic compounds are based are becoming rarer and more expensive.

In a few years we may see a return to the practices of my youth, but it won't be for a few thousand years until the real impact on society will be analysed.

Time Team is a television show we quite enjoy, documenting a team of archaeologists as they search for clues of our history, digging up bits of pot, shards of bone, and other detritus.

While watching it last night we couldn't help but imagine archaeologists digging among our middens, sitting amid a mountain of "recycled" plastic bags, trying to figure out why the embalmed organic substance in them held so much importance for us that we saw fit to preserve it in plastic for future millenia.

If canned pet food really contains as much preservative as I think it does, their discovery may an unpleasant one indeed.


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