Will Plastic Bags Ever Disappear?

A technological marvel, the plastic bag has become a symbol of humankind's ecological footprint. Laws and habits are decreasing their use, but the alternative is sometimes worse.

Don't worry, in 400 years this one will have completely disappeared...
Don't worry, in 400 years this one will have completely disappeared...
Gilles van Kote

PARIS - Scapegoat or environmental calamity? In three decades the plastic bag, a technological marvel capable of supporting two thousand times its own weight, has become a symbol of the thoughtlessness – and indeed an ecological footprint – of our consumerism.

In an attempt to rid our landscapes and oceans of this scourge, Mauritania and Mali, following in the path of other countries, have made plastic bags illegal as of Jan. 1, 2013.

In Oct. 2012, Haiti banned plastic bags and polystyrene packaging nationwide, in order to protect, said Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, the island’s coast and mangroves which risked being asphyxiated by the detritus.

Further up north, the Canadian city of Toronto was also intent on banning the bags but changed its mind in late November out of fear of lawsuits by the plastics industry and merchants’ associations. Meanwhile, Concord, Massachusetts prohibited the sale of small plastic water bottles as of Jan. 1 of this year.

Measures banning – or taxing – shopping bags and other single-use bags are multiplying around the world. Denmark pioneered a tax in 1994. In 2002, Bangladesh banned all plastic bags. The bags were suspected of causing major floods in Dacca by blocking water evacuation channels. The same year Ireland imposed a 15 euro cent tax per shopping bag that resulted in a 90% decrease in demand.

By the early 2000s, production of plastic bags around the world had reached between 500 and 1,000 billion units. Their light weight means not only that they count for relatively little in terms of global plastics production but that they also are often not disposed of and collected like other garbage. In nature, they can take up to 400 years before they can start to break down. The oceans are stuffed with them, and that includes the stomachs of marine mammals.

"Single use plastic bags should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere," Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said in 2009.

Opponents of prohibition measures say that they are not an effective response to economic or environmental considerations. "Unfortunately, the political symbolism of banning the bags is powerful," Todd Myers, director of the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center’s Center for the Environment wrote in the Wall Street Journal in October.

Recycling, not banning

Yet the endless forests of plastic bags clinging to trees, bushes and fences that today surround most agglomerations in developing countries are very real.

But in Togo, where the bags have been banned since the beginning of 2011, "nothing has changed," according to several observers. "These prohibition measures are often just smoke and mirrors because they’re never implemented," says Michel Loubry, who represents PlasticsEurope, the trade association that represents the interests of the plastics manufacturing industry in Western Europe. "We would do better by starting to help these countries get equipped with waste collection and treatment systems," he adds.

French NGO Gevalor is exploring an alternative to prohibiting bags – recycling them. In Madagascar, their project for the semi-industrial production of paving stones made from recycled plastic bags and sand is almost ready for commercialization. In Kenya, UNEP is helping the city of Nairobi develop the infrastructure needed for the collection and recycling of plastic bags and the parallel introduction of a tax. The recycling networks in developing countries are too artisanal to meet environmental demands.

While the European Union is still hesitant about banning or taxing plastic bags, Italy banned them in 2011. France has decided to tax single use shopping bags that are not biodegradable starting Jan. 1, 2014. The tax is expected to be about six euro cents.

The number of such bags used in France has decreased from 15 billion units in 2003 to around 800 million in 2010. The fact that major retail chains no longer hand out the bags free has played a large role in this. The retailers saw where their interest lay and now sell reusable bags.

The progressive disappearance of the free plastic shopping bag, often reused in private households as a garbage bag, has led to an increase in sales of garbage bags – which require a lot more plastic to make than the flimsy little single use bags.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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