Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Liam Denning

For Oil, There’s a Green Swan Lurking in This Plastic Bag

The industry is counting on “non-combustibles” for future growth. That just got more difficult.

Up in the air.

Up in the air.

Photographer: Bruno Vincent/Getty Images Europe

Back in 1999, one of the most talked-about scenes in one of the most talked-about movies involved a dancing plastic bag. It was surely a more innocent time. Still, two decades on from American Beauty and its bag-shaped pretensions, this is an opportune moment to reiterate that it’s just trash. 

China has unveiled plans to curb the use of non-degradable plastic bags in supermarkets and malls across major cities as well as food-delivery services. The problem with plastic isn’t plastic, much of which is useful and likely irreplaceable. Rather, it’s that we produce a lot of low-value but long-lasting plastic — especially packaging — that overwhelms our waste-management capabilities (or inclinations, for that matter) and winds up polluting the planet. Plastic bags blowing about in a fall breeze aren’t, as the movie contends, a metaphor for the hidden wonders of suburbia; they’re an expression of failure.