May 7, 2018 Environmental Issues, Pollution Written by Greentumble
Impact of plastic bags on environment
Plastic bags cause many negative effects for

us and the environment. We use disposable plastic shopping bags out of convenience and ignorance of their seriously negative consequences. Plastic waste affects all types of biomes and organisms.

These consequences can be seen all over the world and are a multinational, worldwide issue that must be addressed. Plastic bags continually cause harm to natural environments from the beginning to the end of their life cycle.

The energy intensive plastic bag production

One of the most significant and global effects of plastic bags is how they are made.

Plastic bags are obviously made of plastic; but what is plastic? 

In the simplest form, plastic is made out of petroleum (oil). Nearly 10 percent of all of the oil consumed each year goes towards making plastic. In the U.S. alone 12 million barrels of oil are used each year to produce plastics bags, which makes more than 100 billion plastic bags [1]

During the production of plastic bags the petroleum must be extracted, refined, and shaped. Each of these processes requires a lot of energy and this energy comes from burning fossil fuels, like oil [2].

The root of this issue is the huge amount of oil that is used in the production process. Oil is one of the most commonly used fossil fuels on earth and is one of, if not the biggest, contributors to climate change

When oil is burned or produced it creates greenhouse gases. These gasses lead to the greenhouse effect, which causes earth to absorb more of the sun’s energy and increase in overall temperature. The scary part about the greenhouse effect is even a small change in earth’s temperature, 1-2 degrees Celsius, can have huge impacts around the world.

As earth’s temperature increases many things will change. In coastal regions one of biggest issues is sea level rise caused by melting ice and glaciers. Some island nations, such as the Maldives, will be fully submerged with only a 40 inches rise in sea level.

Cities like Venice, Italy are actually built at sea level, so any increase in sea level could lead to disastrous results [3]

Climate change has also been shown to cause increased strength / frequency of storms, changing weather patterns, droughts, and ocean acidification. If climate change continues these consequences will become stronger and more prevalent affecting plants, animals, and humans all around the world.

Plastic pollution in the ocean and our waterways

One biome that has become increasingly affected by plastic waste is the ocean. Nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic is washed into the ocean every year. Some plastics release chemicals in the water leading to cancer and other health issues, but the most prevalent issue is the consumption of plastic by animals.

Plastic waste on a beach

Fish, turtles, and ocean birds are the largest groups affected by plastic debris. Nearly 100 million marine animals die each year directly from the consumption of plastic waste. These animals often eat plastic, which their bodies cannot digest. This blocks their digestive tract, leading to death [4]

Even for us this is a huge issue because we eat a lot of fish and if fish have consumed plastic we end up eating the plastic inside the fish.

Turtles have been especially affected by plastic bags in the ocean. Turtles have been known to confuse plastic bags for jellyfish (one of their common food sources) and eat them unknowingly. Over half of the world’s sea turtles ingest plastic in their lifetime [9].

Oceans are a multinational resource that many people around the world rely on for their survival.  When plastic waste is released into the ocean currents often carry it very far from its original source polluting different regions of the world.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Currents sometimes lead together into gyres (large circular currents) and carry large quantities of waste to the same area of the ocean. One example of this is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

It is located in the North part of the Pacific Ocean and is estimated to contain between 1.15 million and 2.4 million tonnes of plastic [5]. It is made up of all types of waste, but the largest component is small plastic particles.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to grow every year and will continue to do so until humans stop releasing waste in the ocean.

Adverse effects of plastic bags on land

Plastic shopping bags also represent a large part of plastic pollution on land.

Single use plastic bags are easily blown by wind and carried long distances getting stuck in trees or going into storm drains. If plastic bags do end up in storm drains they are carried out to sea or they contribute to clogging them.

Clogged storm drains can lead to flooding during large rains and create big areas of standing water, which are breeding grounds for disease carrying insects, like mosquitoes. 

Even when plastic bags are properly disposed of they end up in landfills. In landfills they use a lot of space and can take 400 years to degrade. This huge biodegradation time leads to a buildup of more and more plastic bags in our landfills [6].

Negative effects of plastic bags on animals

On land plastic bags are consumed by animals, just like in the ocean. Animals eat food wrappers, waste, and plastic bags leading to digestive problems that can cause death.

Monkey holding a plastic bag

Furthermore, animals can get trapped with bags around their heads causing them to suffocate. There is even one recorded case of two deer getting their antlers tangled together by plastic waste [7]. These animals suffer huge consequences because our plastic waste is not correctly disposed of.

Harmful effects of plastic bags on plants

Even plants are not protected from the harm caused by bags.  When plastics breakdown in soil they release harmful chemicals, like Bisphenol A (BPA), that can harm natural microorganisms that plants are dependent upon for survival [8]

Additionally, plastic bags can get caught on plants, preventing them from getting the light or nutrients they need. The delicate natural cycles that balance ecosystems are being put into jeopardy.

The environmental consequences of plastic bag use can be seen across all realms of earth. The impacts of plastic in our environment are dramatic and daunting for all living things, including us.

If a change is not made many of the natural cycles that have been in balance for thousands of years may become lopsided, leading to unknown issues for future generations who will suffer of negative effects of plastic pollution caused by our reckless behavior today.