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Luísa Reis-Castro

Interests in a Plastic Bag: a sociotechnical analysis on the (de)construction of different types of plastic bags as ecological Part 2

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Open Access

Thinking through a bag

1Implementing a technology such as the oxo’bio’degradable is not just a mere technical decision. Each alternative cannot be dissociated of the modes of action and worldviews it is embedded on and reinforces.

Additionally, the passage from one device to another means much more than a simple technological reorientation: it corresponds to a profound transformation on the privileged modes of action in case of uncertainty (Barthe, 2009, p. 3).

2Eide Abreu (1996) in The Repair of Objects in a Society of Disposables argues that “observing the world of objects that surround us, allows to comprehend that they are produced to last an ever shorter time period, so that it is increasingly shorter the interval between window-shops or stocks and the user’s trash can” (p. 23). At the same time, she points out one can notice an exponential increase on the amount of objects consumed.

Far from deriving of a simple coincidence, the existence of these two aspects in our society – a production made not to last and a voracious consumption of objects – intertwine two attitudes in a same tendency (…). As Marx affirms, production does not determine only the object produced, but also the consumption mode, and also the consumer” (ibid).

3This double tendency can be perceived in our case study. First, by adding d2w, the continuous plastic bag consumption can be maintained, even on times where there is a demand for ecologically friendly products. Additionally, the oxo’bio’degradable has a lifetime spam of eighteen months, after that it starts to degrade. The plastic products generally have a short use period, and in our society of the disposables, these products proliferate: from cups and plates to photo cameras and chairs.

4Furthermore, Jean-Pierre Dupuy remarks, “ecology, ‘life quality’ has become a cost, a restraint to profit. It is required to convert it into a source of profit, transform it into merchandise, produce and sell it” (1980, p. 20). Oxo’bio’degradable is an example of this trend – termed sometimes ‘green washing it’. First, because d2w itself is ecology transformed into product. Additionally, the shop owners use the bag’s ecological characteristic as a marketing strategy. After all, as Ulrich Beck reminds us, “ecology has become an achievement, a seller of itself – at least in the form of cosmetic or green packaging” (1997, p. 66).

5Dupuy also pinpoints the rise of what he defines as ecology of capitalism, which “is the integration of ecological constraints into the capitalistic logic” (1980, p. 16). That is, when confronted with environmental problems, there is a quest of technological solutions, instead of criticizing what caused the problem in the first place. The oxo’bio’degradable can be illustrative of this tendency: faced with high amounts of plastics and plastic bags scattered in the environment and in urban waste, instead of criticizing the extravagant consumption, what is proposed is a technological solution that would solve the problem without demanding behavioral change.

6This reasoning is similar to that proposed by Alvin M. Weinberg on his article from the 60s, Can Technology Replace Social Engineering? He argues that social problems are much more complex and harder to pinpoint than technological ones. They are more complicated to solve because social engineers must cause social change by inducing people to behave differently – e.g., brining returnable bags from home – and changing human behavior is a difficult task. According to him, “by contrast, technological engineering is simple” (Weinberg, 2006, p. 28). Thus, due to the straightforwardness of technological engineering and the complexity of the social one, he proposes to circumvent social difficulties by reducing them to technological ones. The term ‘technological fix’ defines technologies that “eliminate the original social problem without requiring a change in individual’s social attitude, or would so alter the problem as to make its resolution more feasible” (p. 28-29). While he acknowledges that technological solutions can be “incomplete and metastable” (p.33) he still advocates that technological fixes are more “practical, and, in the short term, relatively effective” (p.32).

7Thus, the choice of opting for the oxo’bio’degradable is not just a mere technical solution but it encompasses and shapes diverse other spheres. What is interesting to note is that the construction of oxo’bio’degradable as fact / fiction also produces knowledge on what it means to be ecological. This statement can be better understood if we analyze the other alternatives that also emerged.

Belo Horizonte Case Study

8As stated before, this work’s entry point is the plastic bags. When we shop in stores and supermarkets we need a way to take our acquired goods home. Fernanda Altoé Daltro1 points out that according to a report from ABRAS (Brazilian Association of Supermarkets) an estimated number of 33 million plastic bags are consumed everyday in Brazil (Daltro, 2009). As aforementioned, consumption of plastic in general, and plastic bags more specifically, are being condemned.

9In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, plastic bags were offered free of charge by businesses. Many consumers would use these bags to store their domestic waste: in Brazil, it is estimated that 80% of plastic bags are later used as containers for domestic waste (Daltro, 2009). Hence the lifetime of these products is not very long. Due to aforesaid criticism of plastic use, these bags have also been criticized and restricted2.

10In Belo Horizonte3 there is already a legislation that aims to control use of plastic carriers. Law n° 9.529, from February 27, 2008, issued by city councilperson Arnaldo Godoy (Workers Party – PT) declares that “Article 1º ­- The use of garbage and other plastic bags must be replaced by the use of ecological4 garbage and other plastic bags, in the terms of this Law. Nonetheless, this law did not specify what was to be considered ecological and what was not.

11This law was strongly lobbied by ResBrasil / Symphony Environment and other supporters of oxo’bio’degradable. The British company has already been accused of pressuring for the use of its bags, which would only ‘greenwash’ products (Pearce, 2009)5. Godoy explicitly stated in an interview that when he wrote the law, he had in mind the oxo’bio’degradable carriers, which would still be freely distributed to consumers (DireitoCidadão, 2011).

12Nonetheless, although oxo’bio’degradable supporters were the main lobbyers for the law, a more recent decree by Mayor Márcio Lacerda (PSB – Brazilian Socialist Party) regulates law n° 9.529/2008 and does not include oxo’bio’degradable as a possible alternative. Hence, decree n° 14.367, from April 2011, state that:

Article 1º - Private establishments and bodies and agencies from the Government located in the Municipality of Belo Horizonte ought to replace the use of garbage and other plastic bags by the use of garbage and other ecological bags, in the terms of the Law nº 9.529/08 and this Decree.

Article 2º - It is forbidden to use plastic garbage bag and plastic bag for packaging, packing, storage or transportation of waste or products sold or supplied, albeit free of charge, (…) within the territory of the municipality.

Sole paragraph - The ban does not apply to packaging, packaging, storage or transportation performed by an individual outside private or public agencies or entities, done privately and without gainful intent.

Article 3º - For the purpose of this Decree, the following definitions apply:

I - ecological garbage bag: made of biodegradable or recyclable material;

II – ecological bag: one made of biodegradable, recyclable or returnable bags;

§ 1º - It is considered to be biodegradable material that which presents degradation by biological processes, through the action of microorganisms, under adequate conditions and that meets the following requirements:

I – conclusion within 180 (one hundred eighty) days;

II – final residues do not present remnant of toxicity, nor are harmful to the environment (…).

§ 2º - It is considered to be a returnable bag that made of durable, strong enough to withstand the weight of transported goods, washable, with a minimum thickness of 0.3mm (three tenths of a millimeter), intended for continuous reuse.

13It is interesting to note the differences between this decree and a former one – decree n° 13.446, issued by Mayor Fernando Pimentel (PT) in 2008 – which also aimed at regulating law nº 9.529: (1) the former decree did not include the two requirements prescribing a biodegradable material (conclusion within 180 days and final residues which are not toxic nor harmful to the environment); (2) the former decree had an extra article which indicated that

other materials may be included under the notions of garbage and other ecological bags, in view of the evolution of manufacturing processes and the development of new materials proved to be less harmful to the environment, with the assent of the Municipal Deputy Secretariat of Environment and the Superintendent of Urban Sanitation (Secretaria Municipal Adjunta de Meio Ambiente e da Superintendência de Limpeza Urbana).

14Thus, one can infer that this new decree was written aiming at excluding oxo’bio’degradable from the ecological characterization, and nowadays the most common alternative adopted by supermarkets is to sell biodegradable bags for R$0.196. On the following section I will analyze how after the law was issued in 2008, arguments were (de) constructed in order to characterize each new solution as ecological.

Multiple ecological

15When discussing bans on plastic bags, one of the first alternatives that emerge is the reusable or returnable bags. Several countries have adopted zero tolerance on plastic carriers, being Rwanda an example. The country declared a nation-wide ban on all plastic bags, combined with a strong campaign to involve citizens in cleaning the country up. Currently Rwanda prides itself for being plastic-free – there are even checks at the airport, to guarantee that no one is bringing plastic carriers into the country (Kohls, 2011; Muhirwa, 2011). In 2007, Rwanda’s capital, Kigali City, was granted the Habitat Scroll of Honor Award 2008 given by UN Habitat, due to its environmental improvements, especially concerning cleaning up the plastic bags. Other solutions have also been presented and promoted around the world: for example, Bangladesh’s jute (Clapp & Swanston, 2009, pp. 325, 328) or the already long used paper bags in the United States of America (pp. 317-318, 325-327). Nonetheless, it is not the aim of this paper to map the variety of proposed solutions, but to understand the (re)transformation of plastic from a threat to the environmentally to an ecological object.

16As mentioned, for one year I followed four of the solutions that emerged on the context of Belo Horizonte’s law concerning the end of (non-ecological) plastic bags: (1) the already described oxo’bio’degradable; (2) biodegradable, which are made from manioc or corn; (3) stronger and more resistant plastic bags; and (4) charging money for the bags. I chose to focus on these ones since all of them are still plastic bags, but now converting ‘plastic’ into something ecological. These four alternatives aim to be characterized as environmentally friendly bags and thus be allowed under the new law. As we are reminded by Michel Callon “to interest other actors is to build devices which can be placed between them and all other entities who want to define their identities otherwise” (1986, p. 9). In our case, this means that to define one of the solutions as ecological requires a simultaneous characterization of the other options as non-ecological ones.

17The specification of what it means to be ecological varies and a constellation of actors are mobilized in continuous formations of competitive, contrastive and temporary characterizations. The following figure can illustrate these associations:

Figure 1 - The four ecological plastic solutions

Green bubbles represent those mobilized in order to characterize a solution as ecological.

Orange bubbles represent those mobilized in order to characterize as non-ecological.

Red bubbles represent those mobilized in order to characterize a solution as economically negative.

Purple bubble represents those mobilized in order to characterize a solution as economically positive.

Dashed lines indicate a relation marked by uncertainty.

18The oxo’bio’degradable solution was already described in the previous section. Notwithstanding to clarify the (de)construction movements of this plastic as ecological I bring attention to its associations in the subsequent figure:

Figure 2 – (de)construction of oxo’bio’dégradable as ecological

19One first point is that we can notice that all relations are marked by uncertainty. As aforementioned, those who promote this technology affirm that when d2w is added in the PE or PP production, degradation is accelerated. This process would, nonetheless, release CO2 – which would add to the greenhouse effect. Notwithstanding, these associations are contested. Some state that oxo’bio’degradable would only crumble, not being transformed in CO2 and consequently not increase the greenhouse effect.

20The oxo’bio’degradable recyclability is also debated. On the website of Symphony Environment and ResBrasil it is claimed that it can be recyclable. However, a study made by the Loughborougy University, financed by the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, asserts that

oxo-degradable7 plastics are not suitable for recycling with main-stream plastics. The recyclate will contain oxo-degradable additives that will render the product more susceptible to degradation. Although the additive producers suggest that stabilisers can be added to protect against the oxo-degradable additives, it would be problematic for recyclers to determine how much stabiliser needs to be added and to what extent the oxo-degradable plastic has already degraded. On this basis it seems unreasonable to claim recyclability of oxo-degradable plastics in existing recycling streams (Loughborough University Report , 2010, p. 16).

21That is, oxo’bio’degradable can only be recyclable if it is once again transformed into PE or PP, which would be problematic according to the British university report.

Figure 3 – Production phases of biodegradable plastic

22Another solution, the biodegradable plastic, also promises a faster degradation. It is produced from starch, through the fermentation of plants like corn or manioc8. In the following image, we can see a summary of the different phases necessary to transform starch into a polymer.

23Microorganisms can consume biodegradables without the uncertainty surrounding oxo’bio’degradable. Thus, it was promoted as a desirable approach to deal with the environmental concern which plastic waste management has become. Nonetheless, its biodegradability does not guarantee the status of most sustainable and ecological alternative.

Figure 4 – (de)contruction of biodegradable as ecological

24In order to better understand the (de)construction of biodegradable plastic as ecological, the mobilizations made were highlighted at Figure 9.

25The raw material used for biodegradable differentiates it from the other solutions: plants that need to be harvested. Opponents/skeptics of this solution highlight that to produce this alternative would demand more energy when compared to its synthetic opponents.

26Tillman Gerngross calculates that to produce 1kg of biodegradable plastic from corn, 2.39kg of fossil fuel is needed; meanwhile, to manufacture the same quantity of synthetic plastic requires 2.26kg (1999, p. 3). According to him, these are moderate numbers and the difference could be even greater. Furthermore, the author claims that in the United States of America, corn production – the raw material for biodegradable plastic in this country – accounts for 44% of fertilizer use, 44% of insecticide, and 55% of herbicide (p. 2).

27For those opposing biodegradable, one of the most important factors to define the plastic sustainability is energy minimization. Gerald Scott, professor at Aston University and Chairman of Oxo-Biodegradable Association: Protecting the Environment through Oxo-Biodegradable Plastic, pinpoints that plastic made from starch are not an ecological solution because

tilling the ground involves energy input, as does the manufacture of fertilisers, the harvesting of the crop, the disposal of waste in such a way that it does not cause pollution. When the crop is required as a feedstock for polymer manufacture, it has to be transported to the factory and the required polymer purified from plant waste before the process of chemical modification described above can begin. The energy from all these processes is at present derived from fossil resources and not renewable resources (2006).

28He emphasizes that there should be a minimization of land needed to produce materials, a fact that does not occur in the case of biodegradables. Notwithstanding, if for Scott and others land usage is pinpointed as an element that define plastic from starch as non-ecological, at the same time, it is used as one of the most relevant characteristics to define it as environmentally friendly. Corn and manioc are harvested, which means that this plastic is produced from a renewable source, contrary to its synthetic opponents, made from petroleum, a non-renewable source. Biodegradables cannot be recycled, which is mobilized by opponents to define it as a non-ecological solution. Furthermore, the degradation of this plastic would also release CO2, adding to the greenhouse effect.

29Another point, which does not concern the ecological characterization of the biodegradable alternative, but that

30A third solution recommends increasing the weight capacity of PE and PP bags. This alternative is proposed by the previously mentioned entity Plastivida Instituto Sócio-Ambiental dos Plásticos, a fiercely opponent of oxo’bio’degradable. As aforesaid, Plastivida represents those linked with plastic industry, and has actively lobbied for the defense of classical plastic bags. It was argued in the media that Plastivida’s pressure has managed to block laws banishing plastic bags in São Paulo and other cities (Zanchetta, 2011; Pellissari, 2011)9.

Figure 5 – (de)construction of increasing bag capacity as ecological

31According to supporters of this alternative, technologies that promote a faster degradation are not trustworthy or too expensive and the best and safest approach is to increase the capacity of PE and PP bags. For them the problem is not the consumption of plastic carriers, but the amount of it. Many shoppers use two bags together or put a limited and small amount of products per carrier, in order not to risk tearing it. With guaranteed stronger bags, there would be a decrease in consumption, it is argued, because fewer bags would be needed to take the shops home. However, critics of this third solution claim that although the number of bags would decrease, the plastic amount would stay the same, since these bags would require more material to be produced.

32To gain the consumers’ trust, Plastivida recommends for example, creating a mark that guarantees 6kg capacity. Since they are more resistant, they could also be reused.

33 Although they are made of polyethylene or polypropylene, maintaining, thus, the difficult degradation problem, more resistant bags can be recycled, which is mobilized to characterize this solution as more environmentally friendly than the two aforementioned alternatives. When compared to ‘normal’ PE and PP bags, ticker bags are more easy and lucrative to be recycled. What is at stake here is what should be more important when discussing ecological characteristics: degradability or recyclability.

Figure 11 – Bag proposed by Plastivida

34Even though it is not related to the (de)construction of the increase of capacity as ecological, the reduction of jobs was commonly mentioned. Moreover, in order to make more resistant bags, changes in the machinery will be most needed probably, increasing the cost for producers.

35Finally, we came to the proposal of charging for plastic bags:

 Image7

Figure 6 - (de)construction of charging for the bags as ecological

36This alternative can be included as one example of the trend which tries to solve environmental problems through market logic (Dupuy, 1980, p. 16)10. Ireland was among the first countries to implement this alternative, introducing in March 2002 a levy of €0.15 per plastic bag. The taxation “aimed at changing consumer’s behaviour, and fixed at an amount sufficiently high to give most consumers pause for thought, and stimulate them to avoid paying by bringing their own ‘permanent’ reusable shopping bags with them” (Convery, McDonnell, & Ferreira, 2007, p. 3).

37In relation to the other solutions described in this article, this is the one more open to modifications throughout the implementation (Callon, 2009, p. 536): it can be combined with other options, the prices can be changed, etc. The most severe accusation aimed at the solution of charging for the bags is that it would burden the consumer, while still polluting.

38South Africa11, for example, in 2003 created a law that banned thin bags (from the most commonly used 17 micrometers of thickness the minimum became 30 micrometers) and forbade commercial establishments to give it away free of charge. In an interview to BBC, a South African said: "You mustn't cut off the plastic. That means you are killing us. To buy food and buy plastic it's more expensive" (BBC NEWS, 2003).

39In article from a Belo Horizonte newspaper it was said that before the law, there was an estimated consumption of 157 millions plastic bags in the city every year. These were offered free of charge, costing the establishments R$ 0.03 per bag. That represented an annual cost of R$ 4.7 millions, which will not exist with the advent of the law. All supermarkets and stores which adopted the solution are charging the consumers R$ 0.19 per bag – they are selling biodegradable bags, which cost more to be produced. Some consumers have decided to go to justice against such action, claiming the formation of cartel – forbidden in Brazilian law (Pedrosa, 2011).  

40Opponents to the solution of charging for the bags argue that this, as well as the other environmental solutions that follow the market logic, while at first may diminish the negative effects, they are not able to solve the problem. Furthermore, these solutions would express the elitist idea that those who can pay can pollute (Latouche, 2005).

41Conclusion

42Even though the law is already in force, the bag’s controversy is still being unfolded. Almost all the markets and supermarkets researched are nowadays charging for the bags, most commonly oxo’bio’degradable ones. The businesses studied in this research are located in the South and Center regions of Belo Horizonte, which are middle and high-middle class neighborhoods. On recent informal visits to establishments in more lower class regions of the city, I found out that ‘normal’ plastic bags are still being offered for free. Hence, one line for further research can be to deeply analyze such differences throughout the city regions. I currently do not have enough quantitative or qualitative data to point out who has been successful or who has failed – if such a point has been achieved. Thus, that could be another interesting line to advance research: map how many supermarkets have adopted each solution and if we can claim that one of the solutions has been successful.

43In this paper I have focused not to pinpoint winners and losers, but to describe the (de)construction of each alternative as ecological, fitting, hence, the new law requirements. I started by giving a brief overview on plastic’s history, presenting how plastic’s characterization has changed: from a possible environmentally friendly solution to one of the most problematic environmental concerns. Hence, I described one of the solutions proposed to alter plastic’s characterization, transforming it once again into something ecological: the oxo’bio’degradable. I mapped the associations mobilized in order to construct it as fact and also as fiction. Furthermore, grounded in different authors, I attempted to think about how a solution – in this case, the oxo’bio’degradable – can be embedded and reinforce a specific mode of action and worldview. Furthermore, each alternative contained a distinct characterization of what it meant to be ecological. Hence, I described four options that emerged under the context of a new legislation in Belo Horizonte concerning plastic bags. These four were not the only ones proposed, but they have as shared characteristic that there are still ‘plastic’, now transformed into an ecological plastic.

44I expect that throughout this study of the (de)construction of these alternatives as ecological, two points have been made clear. First, that the model of diffusion is not a valid one. On the contrary, a more fruitful one is the model of interessment, which “sets out all of the actors who seize the object or turn away from it and it highlights the points of articulation between the object and the more or less organized interests which it gives rise to” (Akrich, Callon, & Latour, 2002, p. 205). I expect that the descriptions of the translation and the aggregation of interests help illustrating that this second model is more reasonable. Secondly, that it is only through an analysis that includes symmetrically the ‘technical’ and ‘social’ – which should not even be disassociated –, hence forming a sociotechnical diagram, that an object can be understood.

45Mars 2012

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Notes

1 From the Secretariat of Institutional Articulation and Environmental Citizenship, part Brazilian Ministry of Environment from Brazil.
2 For an overview of exiting laws around the world see Sung, 2010, pp. 22-23. Detailled information about the different types of legislation concering plastic bags (but the cases are focused in United States of America) can be found in (Plasticbaglaws.org, 2011).
3 There is no Federal law that regulates plastic bag but Belo Horizonte, MG, is not the only city in the country to issue such a law. Several other Brazilian cities have tried to control (in different ways) the use of plastic bags. Examples of similar laws are Florianópolis, Santa Catarina state, law nº 7.627/2008 and Maringá, Paraná state, decree nº 122/2007.
4 In Portuguese there is no expression such as ‘environmentally friend’ nor the use of ‘green’ as its synonymous. In Brazil, the word used is ‘ecológico’ which would be literally translated as ecological. There might be some subtle differences between these three concepts, but I here used them as equal synonymous.  
5 In 2011 Tesco – one of the UK’s largest retailers – decided to stop distribuiting oxo biodegradable, after accusations that the product was merely a ‘greenwasher’. Tesco was formely a strong supporter of oxo biodegradable and “The decision is an embarrassment for the chain, which hailed its introduction of the bags as the centrepiece of its efforts to tackle litter and waste” (Poulter, 2011).
6 The conversion is R$1.00 represents around € 0.45.
7 It’s relevant to note that the report chose to spell it without the bio.
8 The biodegradable plastic from manioc was developed by the Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, and it is the most commonly used in the country. Nonetheless, the references found use corn, most used in other countries.
9 After the law that would banish plastic bags was vetoed at São Paulo, Plastivida submitted a press release approving the decision. The title of it was “Plastic bags are a technical matter, not a political one” (the press release can be read, in Portuguese at: http://www.plastivida.org.br/2009/Noticias_2007_010.aspx).
10 Among the most famous examples is the Carbon Market (Callon, 2009).
11 In the South African there was a significant reduction of plastic bag use following the law, but the country the consumption rebounded in more recent year. Scholars point out to weak long-run enforcement of the regulation (Hasson, Leiman, & M., 2007).

Pour citer cet article

Luísa Reis-Castro, «Interests in a Plastic Bag: a sociotechnical analysis on the (de)construction of different types of plastic bags as ecological Part 2», Cahiers de Science politique [En ligne], Cahier n°23, URL : https://popups.ulg.ac.be/1784-6390/index.php?id=622.

A propos de : Luísa Reis-Castro

Université de Liège, Spiral Institute, Belgium, Maastricht University, The Netherlands