our purchased goods when we go shopping. They are a part of our modern lives, and we don’t tend to think much about them. However, this convenience of plastic shopping bags carries with it a very high cost to the environment and also negatively affects human health.
Because there are so many negative impacts from the use of plastic shopping bags, many cities and countries from around the world have already put plastic bag bans in place. The following are a number of reasons why local and national governments should consider instituting bans on plastic bags.
These amazing animals should be protected, not hunted!
- Plastic bags pollute our land and water. Because they are so lightweight, plastic bags can travel long distances by wind and water. They litter our landscapes, get caught in fences and trees, float around in waterways, and can eventually make their way into the world’s oceans.
- Plastic bags are made from non-renewable resources and contribute to climate change. The majority of plastic bags are made of polypropylene, a material that is made from petroleum and natural gas. Both of these materials are non-renewable fossil fuel-based resources and through their extraction and production, they create greenhouse gases, which contribute to global climate change.
The production of these bags is also very energy intensive. To produce nine plastic bags, it takes the equivalent energy to drive a car one kilometer (more than 0.5 miles).
Using these non-renewable resources to make plastic bags is very short-sighted, considering that the typical useful life of each plastic bag is about 12 minutes .
- Plastic bags never break down. Petroleum-based plastic bags do not truly degrade. What does occur is that when out in the environment, the plastic breaks up into tiny little pieces that end up in the ocean to be consumed by wildlife. Today, there are an estimated 46,000-1,000,000 plastic fragments floating within every square mile of our world’s oceans .
- Plastic bags are harmful to wildlife and marine life. Plastic bags and their associated plastic pieces are often mistaken for food by animals, birds, and marine life like fish and sea turtles. The consumed plastic then congests the digestive tracts of these animals, and can lead to health issues such as infections and even death by suffocation. Animals can also easily become entangled in this plastic .
- Plastic bags are harmful to human health. Plastic fragments in the ocean such as those from plastic bags can absorb pollutants like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) and PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are known to be hormone-disrupting chemicals . When marine organisms consume plastics in our oceans, these chemicals can make their way through the ocean’s food web and then into humans who eat fish and other marine organisms.
- Plastic bags are costly to pay for and to clean up after. While we may not pay for plastic bags directly when we go shopping, they are anything but “free.” Plastic bags cost about 3-5 cents each, and that cost is then incorporated into prices of the items sold at stores. The cost of plastic bag cleanup is about 17 cents per bag, and on average, taxpayers end up paying about $88 per year just on plastic bag waste. So that “free” plastic bag isn’t so free after all.
- Plastic bags are not easy to recycle. As plastic bags tend to get caught in recycling machinery, most recycling facilities do not have the capacity to recycle plastic bags and therefore do not accept them. As a result, the actual recycling rate for plastic bags is about 5%.
- Plastic bags have external costs. Beyond the costs associated with the production and purchasing of plastic bags by retailers, there are many external costs that are often not considered. These costs include the true environmental costs of resource extraction and depletion, quality of life loss, economic loss from littering, and wildlife loss. Sadly, such costs are typically not included in most economic analyses, but nonetheless, these negative impacts are very real.
- There are better alternatives available, and jobs to go with them! Once a person gets into the habit of bringing reusable bags when shopping, it is not much of an inconvenience at all. Reusable shopping bags are very durable and can be reused many times over the course of their useful life. The manufacturing of reusable bags is also another opportunity to create sustainable products and the jobs that go with them.
- Other governments are banning plastic bags, so yours should too… or at least make people pay for them. To date, more than 40 countries and municipalities around the world have instituted plastic bag bans. The United Nations Environmental Programme Secretariat has recommended a ban on all plastic bags globally.
For those governments that are opposed to full bans on plastic bags, another option is to institute a plastic bag tax, where consumers would pay a small fee for each plastic bag. This strategy has been proven to greatly reduce plastic bag usage by consumers.
In Ireland, where this fee was instituted in 2002, plastic bag usage has been decreased by about 90% . Several other countries and cities are now also considering such a tax, including the UK, Australia and New York City.
One of our best modern-day conveniences has become a threat. Plastic bags have been a big part of our lives for a long time that many of us don’t give them a second thought – but we should. Plastic bags are environmentally unfriendly in so many ways. We need to practice saying NO when offered a plastic bag to carry our goods from the shop. Every time you say no to a plastic bag and use a re-usable bag, you are helping to reduce society's reliance on petrochemicals and also helping to save marine animals.
Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, which is derived from ethylene, a gas that is produced as a by-product of oil, gas and coal production. In 2002, the Australian Government undertook a study to determine the energy cost of producing plastic bags. They concluded that after one year of grocery shopping, at ten bags per trip, the energy consumption would be 210 magajoules, the equivalent of 6.6 litres of petrol or 6.06 kg of CO2 emissions. In the US, plastic bag production accounts for 5% of their petroleum consumption. It might not sound like a super lot, but consider that factor being multiplied for worldwide use of these bags.
Once we’ve converted our natural resources into one of these ugly bags, they take hundreds of years to disintegrate. Many of them end up in our waterways and oceans polluting the environment and killing birds, fish and other marine animals. These animals often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them, or they are caught up in them and drown.
Our oceans have been accumulating a whole range of plastic and non-biodegradable garbage. The amount of plastic waste is so high that it is coalescing into islands of garbage, that are often referred to as ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ or ‘The trash Vortex’ - not what you imagine when you think of an island and not somewhere you would want to spend your next holiday.
The Pacific Trash Vortex is an area that spans 696,200 km2 in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s estimated that it contains six kilos of plastic for every kilo of natural plankton. This mass is the size of two states of Victoria put together and comprises plastic, slow degrading garbage, chemical sludge, dead fish, marine mammals, and birds. It swirls a disgusting dance in a continuously expanding clockwise spiral. Some of these plastics will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw them away.
Some hard hitting facts:
- There are estimates that plastic bags kill 100,000 whales, seals and other marine creatures each year.
- Plastic bags have a lifespan of between 20 and 1000 years. In Australia, we use around seven billion plastic bags annually.
- 21,000 tonnes of plastic is disposed of in landfill sites throughout Australia every year.
- The Trash Vortex in the North Pacific Ocean is an area the size of Texas.
There is a solution to our global reliance on plastic bags - biodegradable bags.
Biodegradable bags are made from renewable, organic material such as cornstarch. They can be composted, reducing landfill waste and they break down quickly, reducing the danger to marine life. To be internationally classed as biodegradable, a bag must break down within twelve weeks and be fully degraded within six months. When these bags break down they produce methane, which is not ideal, but is a small price to pay to reduce plastic bag waste.
You might think fine, we can use paper bags, but this comes with a large environmental cost of its own. Paper bags are either made from trees (and we all know that’s not great) or they are made from recycled paper - which is better, but still not fantastic. During the recycling phase, a lot of water is used, as are toxic chemicals.
The best way to go seems to be with a bag that can be reused many, many times. Some reasonable alternatives are:
- Calico bags
- Polypropylene or 'Green' bags
- Biodegradable starch based bags
- Jute bags
- Hessian bags
So what can you do with the plastic bags you already have at home? If you’re like me, you have drawers full of them just in case. They can be recycled. Take them to your local supermarket and place them in the bins allocated - they can’t be recycled through your weekly garbage. The plastic is recycled into composite lumber and plastic pellets - the pellets are then used to make other bags, containers, crates or pipes.
Reusable bags are easy to get a hold of - they sell them at most supermarkets, if not all. This is such an easy way to do your little bit to reduce carbon emissions and save a marine animal or two. Reject the plastic bag now so our children aren’t wading through them at the beach tomorrow.
So what else can we do to reduce the use of plastic bags?
- Use reusable bags when you shop.
- Use garbage-free lunchboxes.
- Avoid using things once only.
- Use a bamboo toothbrush. And see what else you can replace with non plastic alternatives around the house and in your life.
- Avoid buying fruits and meats on plastic trays that are covered in cling wrap.
- Try to buy glass or tinned products instead of plastic containers.
- Recycle your plastics (here's a guide to what can and can't be recycled).
- When you go to the beach take 3 pieces of garbage with you when you leave.
- Join the Ban The Bag campaign.
Want to find out more?
Dionne Lister was born and raised in Sydney and apart from some minor overseas travel hasn’t moved anywhere else. She met her husband through surfing however has had no time for that lately because of her two young children, kindly bestowed upon her by said husband.
She is sensible and works to earn money, however loves writing in her spare time and wishes, as most creative people do, that she could earn her living from such a past-time. Dionne hopes her articles are informative and entertaining and would love some adoring fan-mail ;-) or visit her blog.