February 19, 2019 Environmental Conservation Written by Greentumble
Reasons for banning plastic bags
Plastic bags are a convenient way to carry

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. In fact, it is estimated that up to 10 million plastic bags are used every minute around the world [1].

300 to 700 plastic bags pass through the hands of an average American in just one year [8] and a survey of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concluded that the average household in the United Kingdom stores around 40 plastic shopping bags at home [2].

What about you? Do you also have that overflowing kitchen drawer full of plastic bags you bring from your shopping trips?

If the answer is yes, you should know that this inadvertent overconsumption of single-use plastic carries with it a very high cost to the environment, which in turn also negatively affects our health.

How? Well, let’s have a look at the most important reasons why single-use plastic bags should be banned right now.

 

 

10 Good reasons why are plastic bags bad for us and for the environment

#1 Plastic bags pollute our land and water

Plastic bags are everywhere. Look around and you will notice that plastic bags are the most common litter. Tangled in trees and fences along roads, floating in water, lying on the ground in parks and forests, surrounding garbage bins, washed off on beaches…

Because they are so lightweight, plastic bags get easily picked up by wind and travel long distances by wind and water to pollute the nature. 

Plastic bag litter has even caused great problems in some areas. For example, millions of discarded plastic bags clog water drainage channels and sewers in urban areas of Bangladesh. When the monsoon rains start, streets get waterlogged just after the first few minutes because the water cannot pass through clogged sewerage pipes.

For many of us it is hard to imagine that something as small as a plastic bag can actually cause flooding, but residents of some cities in Bangladesh have been struggling with this problem every monsoon season for the past two decades [3].

The Pasig River in the Philippines is another scary example of the negative effects of plastic bags on the environment. Some tributaries of the river have been filled with plastic waste to the level that you could almost walk across them without getting your feet wet. Unfortunately, such a high level of pollution doesn’t come without consequences. The Pasig River is the eight worst source of ocean plastic pollution in the world.

#2 Plastic bags are made from non-renewable resources and contribute to climate change

We hear everywhere around us that we need to save energy. It is good for our environment, health and global climate. But only a few of us realize that each time we accept those disposable plastic grocery bags at store checkout, we actively participate in wasting energy and depleting non-renewable resources.  

The majority of plastic bags are made of polyethylene, a substance that is derived from crude oil refining and natural gas processing. 

Oil and natural gas are non-renewable fossil fuel-based resources and through their extraction and production, they emit greenhouse gases, which contribute to global climate change.

Oil refinery

The production of these bags is very energy intensive. Globally, 8 to 10 percent of our current oil supply goes to a plastic bag manufacture [4]. In the United States alone, statistics reach up to 12 million barrels of oil that are used each year to produce even more plastic bags – 100 billion more, to give you the precise number [5].

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 and that the world’s oil reserves contain enough oil to cover our needs through 2050, as the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates.
 

#3 Plastic bags never break down

Petroleum-based plastic bags are composed of very resistant synthetic polymers that may take up to 1,000 years or never until they completely degrade in natural environments [6]

What does occur in most instances is that when out in the environment, the plastic breaks up into tiny microscopic pieces that get deposited in soils (where we grow food) or contaminate waterways. These pieces can be so small that they are invisible to our eye.

You can be sure of one thing, though. Even when you don’t see it, these indestructible particles are everywhere around us, including in the food chain.  

Already in 2001, researchers found that the mass of microscopic plastic fragments in the North Pacific Central Gyre was 6 times higher than of plankton. The subtropical gyres of the North Pacific Ocean are also documented to contain the highest concentrations of plastic. It’s because Asian and US coastlines release large amounts of plastic waste in the ocean [7].

But this comes along with many unanswered questions. We do not know the full impact of microplastics exceeding the mass of plankton in the ocean. We don’t know how it will in the long term affect plankton-feeding species and their predators.

Scientists have recorded some species of zooplankton eating tiny plastic particles. Considering what important source of food plankton is for many other species, it is clear that plastic gets distributed across the marine ecosystem.   

The truth is that we do not know yet the full scale of negative impacts plastic waste can have on marine and terrestrial environments because it hasn’t been around long enough to allow us to assess possible scenarios of its influence on natural cycles.

However, one thing we know, is that by introducing a pollutant that may never break down in the environment can have implications that will far exceed any of our predictions.

#4 Plastic bags are harmful to wildlife and marine life

Have you ever seen endangered sea turtles hatch? They are tinier than a palm of your hand and appear so fragile when struggling across the beach to make it to the sea.

Even human footprints left in the sand represent mountain-like obstacles in their path and waves washing up on the beach are another challenge, as they thrust them back on the dry land to try once again before finally being picked up by a return current and start swimming for their life.

Since their birth, baby turtles have only one goal – to get to the sea and swim into deep waters where they will feed and if successful grow into adult turtles. On their long journey, they will encounter many difficulties and only a small portion of them will survive.

Sadly, one of their newly acquired enemies is created by us who should protect them instead. Plastic bags.

Plastic bags floating in the ocean resemble jellyfish, one of the main sources of food for some species of sea turtles, especially the critically-endangered Leatherback turtles. 

According to a study carried out in 2013, up to 35 percent of turtle deaths were caused by plastic ingestion and the probability that sea turtles will consume even more plastic increases every year [9].

Sea turtles are not the only species suffering from plastic bag pollution of the environment.

Nearly 20 years ago, a dead pelican was found with its stomach filled with 17 plastic bags [10]. In 2008, a crocodile in Australia died because of 25 plastic bags filling its stomach [11]. A calf had to be put down because of indigestion caused by 8 plastic bags in its stomach. These examples could go on for a long time…

Plastic bags are often mistaken for food by animals, birds, and marine life. The consumed plastic congests the digestive tracts of these animals, and can lead to health issues such as infections, painful intestinal blockage, starvation or death by suffocation. 

The most heartbreaking part of this is that the affected animals are not aware they eat something that will make them feel miserable and will slowly kill them. 

Animals can also easily become entangled in this plastic waste. There were numerous cases of birds caught in plastic bags, unable to fly and feed, eventually strangling themselves to death.

Similar fate has met dolphins, seals, cats, dogs, deer and many other animals which got severely cut on their bodies due to plastic bag entanglement.

National Geographic made a video on how helpless it feels to be caught in a plastic bag. Have a look yourself to imagine the suffering of these animals.

 

A last example of a true horror caused by plastic has been discovered just recently. A 2018 study of coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific has confirmed that plastic waste deposited on coral reefs promotes outbreaks of diseases that gradually destroy whole reef colonies [12]. So, plastic waste only speeds up the destruction of these most biodiverse ecosystems on earth.

 

#5 Plastic bags are harmful to human health

Many of you may have heard it already. Tiny plastic particles have been found in human feces.

But is it really that surprising?

Microplastics were found in soft drinks like Coca Cola, in tap water, in seafood… It has contaminated our food chain, so it should not surprise us that it can be tracked in our body.

In fact, according to researchers every second person on the planet could have some microplastic in the body [13].

The reason to worry is that scientists do not know how our metabolism and immunity will react to the increased concentration of plastic particles in our system. They suspect that it may add stress on the liver by introducing more pathogens into the body.

Additionally, plastics in our digestive tract may affect absorption of some important trace elements (like iron) which we need for maintaining proper health [13].

Plastic bags and plastic products overall contain substances that are harmful to our health. The most common are inorganic dyes that are added to change the color of plastic bags.

These dyes on their own can leach toxins, but they can also be contaminated with traces of heavy metals such as lead or cadmium, both of which affect kidney health and proper functioning of other organs.

Plastic fragments in the ocean such as those from plastic bags can absorb pollutants like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) easily. These are known to be hormone-disrupting chemicals. 

Plastic bags waste

Another indirect danger of plastic bags has breeding ground in the pollution they create.

Plastic waste that clogs water drainage channels and river tributaries of many Asian cities increases exposure of residents to water-borne diseases, as it creates a toxic soup that remains stranded in one place for prolonged periods of time.

#6 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. 

In fact, plastic bags are considered by many recycling facilities the number one contaminant and their removal from the recycling stream costs municipalities close to $1 million a year [18].

Since plastic bag recycling requires a specialized equipment that can break down the plastic and mold it into a new product, most municipalities do not have the budget to include their recycling in their waste management program. So, plastic bag recycling facilities are few and far between and transportation to one could be expensive.

As a result, the actual recycling rate for plastic bags globally is between 5 to 15 percent, while in the United States it makes only 1 percent a year [17].

Additional problem with plastic grocery bags recycling is their cleanliness. Ideally, to be suitable for recycling, bags need to be clean to be accepted, which is often a problem, considering that we use them to carry groceries and potentially leaky goods.   

 

#7 Plastic bags are costly to pay for and to clean up after

If there is one piece of advice that everyone should remember, it would be that “nothing is for free” in this world.

While we may not pay for plastic bags directly when we go shopping, they are anything but “free.”

On average, plastic bags cost retailers about 3-5 cents each. It may not seem like much, but when you imagine how many bags they have to provide throughout a year, you will quickly realize that plastic bags are costly. So, retailers incorporate this cost “hiddenly” into prices of other items sold at stores.  

Additionally, someone has to pay the cost of dealing with plastic bags in the waste stream. This includes waste collection, regular cleanups to remove plastic bag litter along the roads or blown away from landfills and then even processing at landfill sites. 

According to some estimates, the cost of plastic bag cleanup is about 17 cents per bag [14] and the cost is paid by us once again.

On average, taxpayers end up paying about $88 per year just on plastic bag waste [15].

So that “free” plastic bag isn’t so free after all.
 

#8 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, the loss of quality of life, economic loss from littering, and wildlife loss. 

Plastic bag litter

Unfortunately, such costs are typically not included in most economic analyses, as they are not easy to calculate because the equation would have to involve many indirect variables.

However, in 2014, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) supported the first project to calculate the “real” cost of plastic, including adverse environmental impacts of its production, use and disposal.

The resulting number is staggering. Plastic use costs approximately $75 billion a year [16].

 

#9 There are better alternatives available, and jobs to go with them!

The very best alternative is a reusable bag. Do you wonder why?

The explanation is quite simple. Reusable shopping bags are very durable and can be reused many times over the course of their useful life. 

This means that you are not consuming more resources every time you need to carry your groceries home. Instead, you are actually reusing a product, and that means that you are utilizing earth’s resources smartly, while at the same time reducing waste.

For example, a reusable jute bag should last at least 4 years, during which it can prevent the use of 600 single-use plastic bags.   

Once a person gets into the habit of bringing reusable bags when shopping, it is not much of an inconvenience at all. After all, ask your grandparents, they will remember that during their time people were used to go shopping with their own bags or baskets.

The manufacturing of reusable bags or compostable alternatives to plastic bags offers a new opportunity to create sustainable products and provide jobs that go with them.

The trend has already started. There are some great initiatives that strive to provide jobs for women in rural communities with limited possibilities of securing monthly income.

 

#10 Other governments are banning plastic bags, so yours should too… or at least make people pay for them

To date, around 60 countries and municipalities around the world have instituted plastic bag bans, and additional seven countries are planning to enforce the law in the closest future.

Some countries have decided to do so after directly experiencing negative impacts of plastic bags, other countries have implemented the ban to reach their sustainability goals.

Let’s see some examples:

  • The first country to ban single-use plastic bags was Bangladesh in 2002 when plastic bag litter clogged drainage channels and contributed to destructive floods.
  • Other country that has decided to enforce the country-wide plastic bag ban after suffering of negative consequences was Mauritania. The country instituted the ban in 2013 to minimize livestock deaths. Prior the ban, 70 percent of livestock losses were attributed to plastic bag ingestion [20].
  • In the United States, California has banned single-use plastic bags in 2016, but the city of San Francisco has locally issued this ban already in 2012 and consumers pay a little fee for other alternatives like compostable bags or recycled paper bags.
  • Another example of a locally issued ban is Seattle where not only single-use plastic bags have been banned but also single-use compostable and biodegradable bags. This measure should encourage people to switch to reusable alternatives.

For those governments that are opposed to full bans on plastic bags, another option is to institute a plastic bag tax, where consumers or retailers would pay a small fee for each plastic bag.

This strategy has been adopted by some countries and municipalities so far and has proven to greatly reduce plastic bag usage by consumers. 

Plastic-free shopping

For example, in Botswana, the consumption of plastic bags dropped by 50 percent after the introduction of the tax in 2007. In Ireland, where this fee was instituted in 2002, plastic bag usage decreased by about 90 percent. This means that the average consumption of plastic bags per person dropped from 328 bags per year to just 21 [20].

While these countries and municipalities have been making strides in their part of reducing circulation of plastic bags, in total there are 195 countries in the world [19] and the issue of plastic pollution is still getting out of our hands. That is why the United Nations Environmental Programme Secretariat has recommended a ban on all plastic bags globally.

border-line-red

Steps towards a plastic bag free future: How to help ban plastic bags in your community?

Plastic bags have become such a nuisance because we as consumers use them excessively even when not needed and authorities haven’t figured out effective ways of dealing with them as waste.

Until recently, the impact of plastic bags has been largely underestimated and overlooked.

Logically, the key to starting a change in your community is education.  

This means that you need to first educate yourself about the problem. You need to know what effects plastic bags have on the environment and health. What is the root of the problem (consumers or municipal waste management)?

But you should also consider the other perspective – what effect single-use bags have had on the local economy and product affordability. You should examine what alternatives are available and whether local retailers, who often operate with a limited monthly budget, have the ability to make the switch.

By being aware about these issues, you will be ready to present some strong arguments why plastic bags should be banned in your area and answer questions of people who will become your ally if you will persuade them about your good intentions. Which brings us to the second part…

Second step is educating others.

Help raise awareness of fellow consumers – that means everyone when you think about it (unless they don’t shop…ever).

Communities with good awareness about negative impacts of plastic bags have been more successful at enforcing the ban [20]. This is because the customers voluntarily reduce their consumption of plastic bags, which in turn provides enough time for retailers to find suitable alternatives and switch to them.

Once the wheel starts spinning, it leads to even more positive changes. The decrease in demand for plastic bags forces manufacturers to reduce their production and consider expanding in a supply of alternative products.

Additionally, awareness raising campaigns create a social pressure that should inspire local government and institutions to help in making changes at a bigger scale, like a regional ban or levy.

You as an individual have the power to make a gradual change in your community. Start from yourself and slowly expand to your family and friends. Individual actions can lead to collective actions.

 

How to stop using plastic bags?

The first answer to this question that comes to everyone’s mind is to stop using plastic bags, right? Simply, refuse them when offered and bring your own reusable bag when shopping.

These steps are pretty straight forward and depend on your own initiative.

However, we are all too familiar with situations when a cashier automatically puts your items in a plastic bag before you can oppose it.

In many instances, it may seem too awkward for you to refuse the bag, so you accept it this one time, but you should know that it is fine to say no politely even at this stage if you don’t want that bag. The cashier usually understands, only had to do what instructed and what most customers expect (unfortunately) from him or her. We all are just trying to do our job well.  

Stop using plastic bags

In countries with a lack of awareness about negative impacts of plastic bags, a polite refusal might not be met with much understanding. Then, you should try to explain your reasons for not wanting your products packed in plastic bags.

Most retailers will get your point, but it can also happen that they will not be willing to sell you some products without placing it in their plastic bags because of having to oblige with some hygiene and sanitary standards (for example when selling meat products).

If this happens, there are a few scenarios you can follow:

    • You could either discuss with a store manager a possibility of bringing your own containers for these products.
    • Look for another place that does accept or use alternative packaging, such as small local stores that use paper wraps or compostable bags.
    • Or you may need to accept that plastic bag this time and then start campaigning for a plastic bag ban in your area 😊.

 

What to do with plastic bags you already have at home?

The best thing you can do with those old plastic bags that have been stashed in that overflowing drawer in your kitchen is to recycle them.

You cannot recycle them in the regular curbside collection of plastic, but you should be able to find many larger food stores and retailers (for example: Target, Walmart, Tesco, Morrisons, etc.) that do collect plastic bags and other plastic films and send them for proper recycling. 

You can use some easy online locators to see the closest plastic bag drop-off. All you need to do is paste your ZIP code and then see the list of stores with bag drop-off in your nearest location.

Most drop-off collection points accept plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (plastic number 2) and low-density polyethylene (plastic number 4). It means that most bags can be recycled.

This includes grocery plastic bags, Ziplock-type bags, dry cleaning bags and bread bags.

There is only one requirement – these plastic bags need to be dry and clean, otherwise they contaminate the entire batch and your effort will do more harm than good.  

 

References
[1] https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf
[2] https://www.eco-business.com/opinion/getting-rid-of-plastic-bags-a-windfall-for-supermarkets-but-it-wont-do-much-for-the-environment/
[3] https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/2018/04/09/plastic-chokes-dhakas-drainage/
[4] https://1bagatatime.com/learn/plastic-bags-petroleum/
[5] https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=2935417&page=1
[6] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/
[7] https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/124006/pdf
[8] https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/rare-sea-turtles-eating-plastic-at-record-rate
[9] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cobi.12126
[10] http://www.prijatelji-zivotinja.hr/index.en.php?id=934
[11] http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2008/12/plastic-bags-and-animals-making-the-wild-safe-for-wildlife/
[12] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6374/460
[13] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/22/microplastics-found-in-human-stools-for-the-first-time
[14] https://1bagatatime.com/learn/plastic-bag-clean-costs/
[15] http://www.bagmonster.com/2010/04/the-true-cost-of-single-use-bags.html
[16] http://www.cep.unep.org/cep-documents/unep-press-release-on-the-effects-of-plastic-waste-on-marine-ecosystems.pdf
[17] https://greentumble.com/can-plastic-bags-be-recycled/
[18] https://1bagatatime.com/learn/plastic-bag-clean-costs/
[19] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/how-many-countries-are-in-the-world.html
[20] https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf