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Plastic Bags: A Sustainability Case Study

I explore the issue of plastic bags from a holistic perspective, as a case study to apply various sustainability tools. While the problem of plastic bags is not one of the major environmental issues, it is one worth tackling for a few reasons. First of all, there is a readily available alternative, durable bags, which provide an almost identical service to consumers without the negative impacts caused by plastic bags (and to a lesser extent by other single-use bags). Secondly, this could be a strategic initiative to engage more people in sustainability: switching from single-use bags to reusable ones is an easy action that many could agree to undertake, and it could serve as a "foot-in-the-door" for other sustainable choices.
The report presents an overview of life-cycle impacts of plastic bags and their main alternatives (paper, biodegradable/compostable, and reusable bags), showing that all single-use options have some flaws and are fundamentally inferior to durable bags. It is thus necessary to promote a change of mentality and a switch to reusable bags. I explore external obstacles and behavioral issues associated with this shift (availability and convenience of bags, tendency to forget, social perceptions). Drawing on social marketing, I suggest some specific strategies and tools to overcome these barriers and foster a behavior change. Finally, I present the policy options available to legislators to tackle the problem: recycling, voluntary efforts, fees/taxes, and bans. I survey examples from around the world and the U.S. to highlight strengths and weaknesses of each approach. I find that while the best choice will depend on circumstantial factors, only fees and bans can achieve substantial results. Furthermore, these initiatives are most successful when they trigger a change in social norms, a result that can only be reached with a thoughtful and tailored design and implementation.

Mostra/Nascondi contenuto.
2 “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind wanting to start again?” [Katy Perry, Fireworks] 1. INTRODUCTION 1.1 Plastic Bags and Sustainability Plastic bags have made their way into pop culture as a symbol of abandonment, uselessness and decay. We can find them swirling around on city streets, hanging from trees in forests, floating in rivers and in the sea, and generally littering almost any environment all around the world. Plastic bags also cause other damages besides spoiling our landscapes. They pose a threat to wildlife, especially marine animals, which might eat them or become entangled in them. They can also clog urban sewers and drains, creating risks for public health and safety and using up public money in removal services. One critical aspect is their persistence in the environment: a plastic bag can take up to a thousand years to break down. And when it finally does break down, it does not biodegrade; instead it photodegrades, splitting up into smaller and smaller pieces that might have long-term effects on soil and water quality. Finally, disposable plastic bags are hard to recycle and only a small fraction is recovered. Even when they are kept for reuse as liners for trash bins, for storage purposes or to clean after the family dog, they usually keep accumulating much faster than they are reutilized – virtually any household has a bulging “bag of bags”! Nevertheless, plastic bags are a relatively minor environmental problem. Despite their highly visible presence compared to other garbage materials, they constitute a small fraction of total waste production and take up little landfill space, thanks to their light weight and compression possibility. This could be seen as a reason to focus on more pressing environmental issues that have a bigger impact. However, abandoning the use of plastic bags could be a low-cost strategic choice from a broad sustainability perspective. First of all, unlike other plastic products (like packaging or product components), disposable plastic bags can be readily replaced by other types of bags that in most cases are equally effective. While the shift might cause some inconveniency, the overall cost and burden for the consumer is relatively low. It is important to carefully consider and evaluate alternatives to plastic: options that seem more sustainable might have their own set of environmental disadvantages. Only a life-cycle analysis can assess the complete impact of a product (in this case, a bag) from its production and distribution to its use and disposal. Clearly it is critical to identify solutions that achieve a net environmental benefit, without sacrificing consumers’ convenience. In the case of shopping bags, the life cycle analysis reveals the absence of a clear winner among single-use bags: a real environmental improvement can only be achieved with a switch to durable bags. Secondly, and most importantly from a strategic point of view, an anti-plastic bag initiative could constitute an environmental “foot-in-the-door”: through a relatively easy and “soft” behavior change, many individuals could become more receptive to environmental issues in general. Unlike more drastic green choices, abandoning plastic bags is an action that is within anyone’s reach, therefore it can empower individuals to take personal responsibility and bring sustainability into their own daily life. Furthermore, findings from psychology, behavior change studies and social marketing show that a small initial commitment can go a long way: agreeing to a minor request can subtly shift our self-perception and our attitude on the topic, leaving the door open for greater involvement later on. A successful campaign that A plastic bag hanging from a tree

Tesi di Specializzazione/Perfezionamento

Autore: Cecilia Gamba Contatta »

Composta da 45 pagine.


Questa tesi ha raggiunto 1921 click dal 04/12/2012.

Disponibile in PDF, la consultazione è esclusivamente in formato digitale.