In countries such as the UK, the debate still rages. The large supermarket chains, which are responsible for the vast majority of the bags handed out, have made much of their voluntary action: a combination of charging for bags and offering 'biodegradable' alternatives. As a result, the issue and the cost are left in the lap of the consumer.
But why all this flack for the humble bag? The fundamental issue is that all the qualities that make plastic bags desirable, such as their durability and their impermeability to liquids, also make them extremely undesirable as litter. Bags clog water ways, cause great harm to wildlife and are an unsightly blot on the landscape. The reason given by the Bangladeshi administration for their ban was that rafts of plastic litter were clogging storm drains and causing floods.
Plastic bags are made by processing propane and butane, both by-products of crude oil refinement, by means of a process known as 'cracking'. This combines the raw materials with chlorides to produce polyethylene, the material from which the bags are extruded. They do not biodegrade. They will break down, but it can take anything between 400 and 1,000 years and the end result are tiny toxic particles which then enter the food chain.
It is hardly surprising that the issue has caught the public imagination. Litter is very visible and encroaches directly upon our lives. The problem is obvious, and, even better, the solution is simple: just stop using them. The store bag is purely there as a convenient crutch, a facilitator of impulsive shopping. With a little planning and armed with a sturdy and reusable cloth bag, the problem can simply go away.
In some ways, this issue is a metaphor for the wider environmental crisis: The plastic bag is a young technology. Available in stores from the mid seventies, it has been one of the runaway success stories of our time. Like so many of our more recent and opulent inventions, the bag is seemingly an economic steal. It is lighter and stronger than it's paper counterparts, cheaper and more efficient to mass produce. Like so many other technologies that we have come to take for granted, it also turns out to have unforeseen costs. And, like many of the other issues that confront us in the new century, the visible issue is really only the tip of the iceberg.
One of the reasons that supermarkets and other large traders are so keen to avoid too much legislative attention turning on plastic bags is that they understand what is at stake here: all the objections that can be leveled at plastic bags can equally well be applied to the myriad forms of food packaging with which they dress their wares.
The plastic bag is not the only stratospheric success story of the last 30 years. The rise of the superstore has followed the rise of the bag precisely because the transport and distribution of food, on the scale required by chains such as Tesco and Wal-Mart, would not be possible without the wonders of polyethylene. Those in the business know that lurking beneath the furor about bags is a larger question about how we distribute food and resources in a sustainable society.
Here, again, the lesson of the bag is apt. In disposing of our carriers, we are reverting to exactly the technologies that we used before the advent of the plastic bag: cloth bags, baskets. If we start to think in similar ways with regards to packaging and food distribution, will we also have to consider a similar return to smaller shops, local supply and seasonal stock?
2008 may be the year of the bag, but if we take this issue as seriously as the public debate suggests we do, let us hope that it is the contents of those bags that come under increasing scrutiny in 2009.