The Global Menace of Urban Tumbleweed


There’s only one thing worse than standing at the checkout holding one item, and being asked if you’d “like assistance with packing your bags”. It’s looking down at the sea of half-opened supermarket bags ripped off a filmy wedge of thousands, and realising”¦..most of them are only going to be used once.

Plastic bags are an unforgivable menace. They’re in the 12 most frequent items of human-made debris to appear along world coastlines. They’ve been labeled urban tumbleweed. They photo-degrade – that is, they separate into their toxic components that are more easily absorbed by the biosphere. Each one is a hazard made from an ever-more-scarce resource. Britain has 17 billion of them.

Who doesn’t have access to some kind of bag? It’s hard to come up with another piece of modern toxic waste that is so utterly avoidable. Meanwhile, major retailers try to greenwash their way out of a corner.

Take British supermarket chain Tesco’s announcement in 2006 of a financial reward for returned plastic bags, and the introduction of degradable bags. All very well – except they still continued to churn out new bags, and the new degradable bags were still made from oil. And let’s consider how, back in September last year, an independent survey discovered two other major British supermarket chains were using more bags than ever to deliver home grocieries, despite promising to green up their act. Actions speak louder, guys.

These companies would do well to look across the Pond to San Francisco, which on March 27th, 2007 banned plastic supermarket checkout bags altogether.

Image: Wokka

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.