Before we knew that plastic was such an abomination to the planet, I used to view passengers who shrink-wrap their suitcases in airports with a passing sense of bafflement; in good company with the sort of people who have "baby on board" stickers on their car or whose favourite flavour of crisp is ready salted. Today, the practise horrifies me.
Being a frequent flyer, I am of course far from perfect when it comes to environmental matters. But we must all pick our battles. And if I could, I'd wage war on this, surely the most unnecessary cause of plastic waste.
Why does this service even exist? In looking for answers, I found several reasons, none of them compelling. Bag Wrap, just one company that will sheath your luggage in cling film, with locations in airports all around Europe, states five: that it protects your luggage from damage, deters thieves, weather-proofs it, makes it easily identifiable, and reduces the risk of someone slipping illicit goods into your bag.
Let's go through these one by one. First, protection. The very purpose of a suitcase is to function as a container that protects your belongings. It is itself a barrier between your items and the outside world. Generally, the material is tough. Cling film, on the other hand, is made to protect things like sandwiches.
"Industrial strength plastic wrap ensures new luggage remains in pristine condition," the website says. It's all very well to appreciate shiny new things, but a suitcase of all things is a workhorse, not a prop, and to keep it in mint condition would be to fight a losing battle.
Second, to deter thieves. Yes, a pilfering bag handler is less likely to pilfer a shrink-wrapped case, but in today's world, there just aren't many of them. Baggage mishandling rates have dropped by more than 70 per cent since 2007, according to SITA's latest report, and of the small proportion of bags that were either "delayed, damaged or lost" in 2017, less than five per cent were stolen. Also, why not just use a padlock?
Third, plastic wrapping "weather proofs" your luggage. Quite aside from the fact that the only point at which your suitcase is exposed to the elements at an airport is on its trolley ride from the carousel to the aircraft cargo container, I personally have never had a suitcase destroyed by a climate calamity. Have you?
Fourth, the plastic, often a garish colour, makes it easier to spot at arrivals. Not if others, like you, have also shrouded their belongings in a bright blue layer of skin. Then it become much, much harder. And anyway, why not just tie a ribbon to the handle?
Finally, it makes it tamper-proof to criminals who might want to plant illegal items in your suitcase. This is not really a thing that happens. In every case I could find of someone proclaiming at an airport "those aren't my drugs", they were indeed their drugs. I have heard (scarce) reports of corrupt security employees fiddling with bags behind the scenes, but airport officials are allowed to open any bag they like, shrink-wrapped, padlock-protected or otherwise, so that's a moot point.
I did ask around my fellow frequent travellers to see if I could find someone who partakes in luggage wrapping, but failed. "It's silly," says Gilbert Ott, who takes more than 100 flights a year, "and paying money for it is even sillier." Quite. That will be around $23-$29 each way for a cling-filmed suitcase at a UK airport.
The cost to the consumer is one thing. The price on the planet is another. More than 350 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year: that's more weight than if every human on the planet stepped onto the scales. Half of it is single-use plastic, a lot of which ends up in the sea. Currently, there are more particles of microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.
Let's hope, as is now the case with the cavalier use of plastic shopping bags, that wrapping one's luggage in a glorified condom becomes something of a taboo.
The Telegraph, London