Plastic bags are one of the most ubiquitous signs of pollution on the planet. It’s hard to find a strip of road, river bank or beach that does not have a few plastic bags littering the area. But it’s more than just an eyesore.
These plastic bags pollute waterways, clog sewers and affect the habitat of animals and marine creatures. Because they are so lightweight, plastic bags can travel long distances by wind and water. Plastic bags can block drains, trap birds and kill livestock. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that more than 100,000 whales, seals, and turtles die every year as a result of eating or being trapped by plastic bags.
But the problem runs deeper than littering. Plastic bags are petroleum based. This means that, even when disposed of properly, they do not decompose. So they generate large amounts of garbage over long periods of time. Research shows the average “operating lifespan” of a plastic bag to be approximately 20 minutes. On the other hand, plastic bags can last in a landfill – an anaerobic environment – for about 1,000 years.
Although plastic bags do not biodegrade, they do break down. The plastic breaks up into tiny little pieces that end up in the ocean, to be consumed by wildlife. The consumed plastic then congests the digestive tracts of these animals, often leading to infections, and even death by suffocation.
But humans are also endangered when animals ingest plastics. This is because the plastic fragments in the ocean can absorb pollutants like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). The compounds have been proven to be hormone-disrupting chemicals. This means that, when marine organisms consume plastics in our oceans, these chemicals can make their way through the ocean’s food change. They eventually end up in humans who eat the fish or other marine organisms.
In addition, toxic additives contained in the lightweight plastic—including flame retardants, antimicrobials, and plasticizers—can be released into the environment when the plastic is burned. Many of those toxins directly affect the endocrine systems of organisms, which control almost every cell in the body.
According to the scientists at Greentumble.com, the production of these bags is also very energy-intensive. Producing ten plastic bags requires the equivalent energy of driving a car about half a mile. 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.
On the other hand, the scientists for Novolex, a leading manufacturer of recycled plastics, contend that plastic bags are actually the greener solution. “They’re 100% reusable and recyclable, and studies show that alternatives which seem ‘greener’ actually place a greater burden on the environment because they require more natural resources to produce and transport.”
According to Novolex, “It would take 7.5 years of using the same cloth bag (assuming one grocery trip per week) before it’s a better option for the environment than a plastic bag reused three times.”
The company also claims that most alternatives to plastic bags are not recyclable, according to a 2012 study from the University of Oregon. They also cite recent EPA studies that indicate bag bans and taxes don’t meaningfully reduce litter or waste in landfills.
Countries that have enacted bag bans would beg to differ. Let’s take a look:
In 2002 Bangladesh became the first country to introduce a strict ban on plastic bags after floods caused by littered plastic bags submerged two-thirds of the country in water between 1988 and 1998. Plastic bags remain a big problem for the country’s sewer systems and waterways.
Currently, nine Asian countries have bans or restrictions on plastic bags, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In 2002, India banned the production of plastic bags below 20 microns in thickness to prevent plastic bags from clogging of the municipal drainage systems and to prevent the cows of India ingesting plastic bags as they confuse it for food. However, enforcement of the bag restriction remains a problem.
Many African countries were also among the first to enact bans on plastic bags, primarily because of clogged sewers and drain systems. The resulting increased population of mosquitoes that live on the flooded sewer water was causing severe cases of malaria. Currently, nine countries in Africa have enacted bans or restrictions on plastic bags.
Twelve European countries have bans or restrictions, ranging from total bans (Italy and the Netherlands) to significant fees and recycling taxes imposed on retailers. In April 2014 the European Parliament passed a directive to reduce plastic bag use by 50% by 2017 and 80% by 2019.
Mexico approved legislation to ban and fine plastic bags in August 2010. However, the legislation is not observed and plastic bags remain one of Mexico’s biggest pollution problems.
Colombia is currently the only South American country to enact plastic bag bans or restrictions. In April 2016, the Colombian Ministry of Environment passed a resolution banning plastic bags with dimensions smaller than 30 cm by 30 cm. The Colombian government plans to reduce the use of plastic bags by 80% by the year 2020, and completely eliminate their use by the year 2025.
In March 2007, the small town of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, became the first community in North America to ban plastic bags. In addition, various municipalities have enacted their own bans or restrictions, primarily, fees to retailers.
Individual Australian states and cities have independently banned plastic bags. In 2015, Papua New Guinea announced a previous ban on non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags would be enforced beginning in January 2016.
The territories of American Samoa and Puerto Rico have banned disposable bags, but there is currently no national plastic bag fee or ban currently in effect in the United States. In July of 2015, Hawaii became the first state to fully ban plastic bags at grocery stores. Although California also passed a law last year that requires stores to charge for reusable bags, the measure has been put on hold until a referendum is held in November. Unlike the California ban, which was passed by the state legislature, Hawaii’s ban was instituted at the county level.
In other areas, most restrictions are enacted on the municipal/county level, such as in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin, Texas, to name a few. Currently, more than 100 U.S. counties and municipalities have enacted ordinances either imposing a fee on plastic bags or banning them outright,
While disposable plastic bags may appear to be a relatively small problem in the overall scheme of things, reducing their use is something we can all do. Here are a few tips:
The problem won’t go away overnight, but small steps can eventually have a big impact.