Canadian Plastics

Plastic bags vs. the herd mentality

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche tends to get a bad rap nowadays, in part because of the inspiration many Germans took from his writings to formulate their philosophy in the yea...

October 1, 2008   By Mark Stephen, managing editor



The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche tends to get a bad rap nowadays, in part because of the inspiration many Germans took from his writings to formulate their philosophy in the years leading up to World War II.

Nietzsche was right on the money, though, when it came to understanding the phenomenon of the herd mentality (a phrase he coined, by the way). He divided the herd into two groups, one of which he described as influenced by the media, and by what others around them perceive as “right” according to the latest trends and social norms.

I came across a textbook example of this a little while ago, while reading a news story about a proposal to ban plastic shopping bags at large stores in the Vancouver area. A local advocate of the ban was quoted as saying that, south of the border, San Francisco had already succeeded in banning the bags. “We’ve decided that if San Francisco can do it, we can too,” he said.

This appears a perfect summation of the thought process of many — if not most — supporters of plastics bag bans. Plastics bags must go, they argue, because this or that other municipality has already gotten rid of them — therefore it must be the right thing to do.

This is, of course, exactly how a bandwagon gathers speed.

Needless to say, the anti-plastic bag bandwagon is powered almost entirely by poor science. Not that this matters, though, since supporters of the bans often seem more interested in feeling good about themselves than in making rational

decisions based on the facts — at least if their own words are any indication. As one Chicago-based activist put it: “We all have a tendency to buy too much stuff, and I think the symbolic nature [of plastic bag bans] is what has made this such a powerful thing.”

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that what this person is actually against is perceived consumer excess, and that plastic bags are distasteful to him for purely “symbolic” reasons relating to this.

The latest exposure of the flawed science behind plastic bag bans, meanwhile, comes from Australia. That country’s Environment Minister is planning to phase out free single use plastic bags nationwide by January 1 next year. A cornerstone of his argument is a report carried out for the Australian government in 2002, which said that plastic bags were responsible for the deaths of 100,000 marine animals a year.

This statistic, if true, could arguably make the problem of discarded plastic bags a legitimate global issue.

The problem is, it isn’t true. The claim, it turns out, is a misrepresentation of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland, which found that, between 1981 and 1984, an estimated 100,000 marine animals were killed by discarded nets. The Canadian study made no mention of plastic bags.

When confronted with this by a group of scientists and marine experts, the Environment Minister simply reiterated his commitment to the phase out by January 1, “no matter what.”

This could serve as the motto for many of the anti-plastic bag crowd, divorced as they are from the credible science: no plastic bags, no matter what.

mstephen@canplastics.com


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