The Plastics Revolution

CommentaryAlfred Sedgwick, an obscure English philosopher and logician who died in 1943 at the age of 93, is usually credited with the development of the slippery slope argument. The argument is used to predict, with little or no evidence, that the doing of an act might lead to, or result in, a chain of undesirable, even disastrous, outcomes. Sedgwick’s slippery slope argument is relevant in the context of the banning of single-use plastic bags from Australia’s stores. South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to ban these bags in 2009, followed by the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in 2011. New South Wales was the last jurisdiction to ban single-use plastic shopping bags on June 1, 2022. However, plastic barrier/produce bags continue to be used in major retail stores around Australia, especially in food stores like Coles, Woolworths, and Aldi. Barrier bags are “a single-use item used to carry and transport fruits, vegetables, raw meats, deli items, and seafood from the store to the home.” The continued use of barrier bags raises the question of how these bags differ from single-use plastic shopping bags, which are banned. The history of single-use plastic shopping bags is interesting because it proves that good intentions may lead to unintended, even devastating, consequences. The story of the single-use plastic bag started in 1933 when polyethylene—the most commonly used plastic—was accidentally produced in a chemical plant in Northwich, England. In 1982, the major American retail food giants, Safeway and Kroger, switched to plastic bags, and since then, most stores throughout the world have joined the plastic bandwagon. According to reports, these bags were produced at a rate of up to one trillion bags per year. However, in 1997 oceanographer and captain Charles J. Moore discovered an accumulated gigantic gyre of wasted single-use plastic bags, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This provided the international community with the impetus to fight this environmental degradation. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban the use of single-use plastic shopping bags because they clogged the drainage system during disastrous floodings. By 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that 127 out of 192 countries had adopted relevant legislation to restrict the use of plastic bags. Currently, single-use plastic shopping bags are banned in 32 countries, 18 of which are in Africa. A shopper is seen carrying bags at a Coles Sydney CBD store, Sydney, Australia, on July 2, 2018. (AAP Image/Peter RAE) The single-use plastic shopping bags were often used by people as receptacles of wasted food products and scraps, which would then be consigned to the waste bin, and eventually end up in a landfill. However, the discovery of Moore’s mountains of plastic bags in the Pacific Ocean, threatening marine life, gave the impetus to the banning of single-use plastic bags. As Sedgwick’s slippery slope argument suggests, there cannot be any doubt that the next ban will affect the use of barrier vegetables/fruits/meats/fish bags. This is because the arguments against the continuing use of single-use plastic shopping bags do equally apply to barrier bags. As these bags will not break down for hundreds of years, there is good reason to ban them as well. Moreover, following the ban on single-use plastic bags, people started to use the barrier bags as receptacles for wasted food and scraps—the same as for the banned plastic shopping bags. Some barrier bags are even as sturdy as the banned single-use bags. Hence, the logic used to ban the single-use plastic bags would inevitably result in a demand to ban the barrier bags as well. Which it has, barrier bags, used to transport fruits and vegetables, will be banned in the ACT from July 1. The ACT Government claims that, as these bags can cause serious environmental damage, “the community, businesses, and industry has shown strong support for a ban on barrier bags.” However, the day that re-usable barrier bags will become mandatory is coming ever closer, and major retailers will need to use compostable bags, which may increase the price of groceries. Shoppers are seen using a single-use plastic bag at a fruit and vegetable store inside the Central Market in Adelaide, Australia, on Nov. 1, 2019. (AAP Image/Morgan Sette) In an interesting opinion piece, Diana Diamond argued that legislation banning barrier veggie bags is not based on reliable statistics which prove the toxic effects of these bags on the environment. Commenting on a decision of the Palo Alto Council in California to ban plastic straws, as requested by the Girls Scouts Association, she questioned the wisdom of the council’s earlier decision to ban barrier bags. She notes that the argument in favour of banning barrier bags is the same argument used for the banning of single-use shopping bags—that the shopping bags clog waterways and creeks and degrade th

The Plastics Revolution

Commentary

Alfred Sedgwick, an obscure English philosopher and logician who died in 1943 at the age of 93, is usually credited with the development of the slippery slope argument. The argument is used to predict, with little or no evidence, that the doing of an act might lead to, or result in, a chain of undesirable, even disastrous, outcomes.

Sedgwick’s slippery slope argument is relevant in the context of the banning of single-use plastic bags from Australia’s stores. South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to ban these bags in 2009, followed by the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in 2011. New South Wales was the last jurisdiction to ban single-use plastic shopping bags on June 1, 2022.

However, plastic barrier/produce bags continue to be used in major retail stores around Australia, especially in food stores like Coles, Woolworths, and Aldi. Barrier bags are “a single-use item used to carry and transport fruits, vegetables, raw meats, deli items, and seafood from the store to the home.” The continued use of barrier bags raises the question of how these bags differ from single-use plastic shopping bags, which are banned.

The history of single-use plastic shopping bags is interesting because it proves that good intentions may lead to unintended, even devastating, consequences. The story of the single-use plastic bag started in 1933 when polyethylene—the most commonly used plastic—was accidentally produced in a chemical plant in Northwich, England. In 1982, the major American retail food giants, Safeway and Kroger, switched to plastic bags, and since then, most stores throughout the world have joined the plastic bandwagon.

According to reports, these bags were produced at a rate of up to one trillion bags per year. However, in 1997 oceanographer and captain Charles J. Moore discovered an accumulated gigantic gyre of wasted single-use plastic bags, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This provided the international community with the impetus to fight this environmental degradation.

In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban the use of single-use plastic shopping bags because they clogged the drainage system during disastrous floodings. By 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that 127 out of 192 countries had adopted relevant legislation to restrict the use of plastic bags. Currently, single-use plastic shopping bags are banned in 32 countries, 18 of which are in Africa.

Epoch Times Photo
A shopper is seen carrying bags at a Coles Sydney CBD store, Sydney, Australia, on July 2, 2018. (AAP Image/Peter RAE)

The single-use plastic shopping bags were often used by people as receptacles of wasted food products and scraps, which would then be consigned to the waste bin, and eventually end up in a landfill. However, the discovery of Moore’s mountains of plastic bags in the Pacific Ocean, threatening marine life, gave the impetus to the banning of single-use plastic bags.

As Sedgwick’s slippery slope argument suggests, there cannot be any doubt that the next ban will affect the use of barrier vegetables/fruits/meats/fish bags. This is because the arguments against the continuing use of single-use plastic shopping bags do equally apply to barrier bags. As these bags will not break down for hundreds of years, there is good reason to ban them as well.

Moreover, following the ban on single-use plastic bags, people started to use the barrier bags as receptacles for wasted food and scraps—the same as for the banned plastic shopping bags. Some barrier bags are even as sturdy as the banned single-use bags. Hence, the logic used to ban the single-use plastic bags would inevitably result in a demand to ban the barrier bags as well.

Which it has, barrier bags, used to transport fruits and vegetables, will be banned in the ACT from July 1. The ACT Government claims that, as these bags can cause serious environmental damage, “the community, businesses, and industry has shown strong support for a ban on barrier bags.” However, the day that re-usable barrier bags will become mandatory is coming ever closer, and major retailers will need to use compostable bags, which may increase the price of groceries.

Epoch Times Photo
Shoppers are seen using a single-use plastic bag at a fruit and vegetable store inside the Central Market in Adelaide, Australia, on Nov. 1, 2019. (AAP Image/Morgan Sette)

In an interesting opinion piece, Diana Diamond argued that legislation banning barrier veggie bags is not based on reliable statistics which prove the toxic effects of these bags on the environment. Commenting on a decision of the Palo Alto Council in California to ban plastic straws, as requested by the Girls Scouts Association, she questioned the wisdom of the council’s earlier decision to ban barrier bags.

She notes that the argument in favour of banning barrier bags is the same argument used for the banning of single-use shopping bags—that the shopping bags clog waterways and creeks and degrade the oceans. She indicates that, in such circumstances, the remedy is not to ban them, but to adopt legislation to ensure that people dispose of the bags in a responsible way, which does not contribute to, or results in, the pollution of the environment. She concludes that what is done to eliminate plastic vegetable barrier bags will “have little impact on the earth’s global warming problem” and that the pollution caused by plastic bags “is more a disposal problem than a plastic problem.”

Diamond’s view relies on the slippery slope argument: once a decision is made to ban single-use plastic bags, inevitably there will be demands to ban barrier bags. This, in turn, might lead to demands that other single-use plastic items, which endanger the environment, should also be banned.

It can be seen that the incessant demands to ban all plastic items may well cause other assumed environment-friendly actions, the aggregate result of which adversely affects people’s lives.

Hence, the issue is not whether plastic bags are good or bad, and whether all plastic items should be banned, but how far humanity is prepared to go to protect the environment, the oceans, and our forests. Sedgwick’s slippery slope argument is thus instrumental in reformulating one of the burning issues of our time.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States. Moens has recently published two novels “A Twisted Choice” (Boolarong Press, 2020) and “The Coincidence” (Connor Court Publishing, 2021).