Big debates and media attention regularly surround contentious environmental issues, such as deforestation, global warming, and nuclear power. Then there is the plastic bag, an inexpensive, lightweight, and thin item that few of us think twice about. Nevertheless, environmentalists, manufacturers, and politicians have battled for years over whether it is friend or foe.
First introduced to consumers in the late 1970s, plastic bags were created to be convenient, hygienic, and strong, revolutionising the consumer’s shopping experience. In fact, for those who were born in the last few decades it would be hard to imagine life without them. Frustratingly, discussing the ins and outs of the plastic bag seems to be circular, with the multitude of reasons it is thought to be a blessing posing to be the exact same reasons for environmental concern.
CONVENIENT OR WASTEFUL?
Plastic bags were designed to be disposable, single-use items that after short-term convenience would be binned as solid waste. Considered to be the definitive figure of consumerism, it is estimated that between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. Where does this solid waste go? Whilst the bulk of it ends up within landfill, sadly millions of bags are strewn elsewhere.
Landfills are known to cause local pollution in the form of dust; ground water and soil contamination; noise; and unpleasant odours, whilst outside of landfills the bags pollute drainage ditches; rivers; city streets; and the oceans. Despite the fact that we frequently act otherwise, it’s important to remember that the earth and its waters aren’t exclusively ours. Various experts estimate that up to a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals are killed each year from plastic debris including bags. Granted, they are one of the best options to carry your groceries, but what happens to them afterwards is a problem.
INDISPENSIBLE OR INDESTRUCTIBLE?
To prove useful to the consumer in carrying heavy items, the bags are made from a durable material: plastic. The downside to the composition of plastic, and the chemical bonds which make it so strong, is that the same bonds make it resistant to the natural process of degradation. Bags that end up in landfill are predicted to take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and even then plastic molecules never disappear completely.
In an attempt to minimise contribution to landfill waste, modern plastic bags are increasingly being made from biodegradable or degradable materials, such as bioplastics and polyethylene. Bioplastics can break down in either aerobic or anaerobic environments, and therefore are the preferred choice; however bioplastics encompasses a small niche of the overall plastic market, limiting its ability to meet consumer demand. Polyethylene, on the other hand, is degradable only under conditions of moisture, oxygen and sunlight, failing to decompose easily in a sealed landfill.
RESPONSIBLE OR REMISS?
In being dissuaded from binning them, we’re encouraged to reuse and recycle. Nowadays, everyone’s idea of reusing their plastic bag is to line their bin. The clear upshot of this is a reduction in demand for another plastic product – bin liners – but in reality it’s only delaying the inevitable. Furthermore, with the separation of waste into compost, garbage and recyclables perhaps there’s no longer a need to bag garbage. This leaves us with one last option: recycle.
Some bags are now made from recycled post-consumer waste and are, in turn, recyclable themselves. In order to appeal to the consumer the bags are made to be lightweight and thin, which makes recycling them logistically difficult. Thus, plastic bags are still not readily welcomed by all municipal or national waste management services. Moreover, in a lot of cases those that do offer plastic recycling services ship the waste overseas, or send it to landfill.
INEXPENSIVE OR UNECONOMICAL?
Designed for cheap mass production, plastic bags use fairly small amounts of energy and raw materials. The catch here is that the energy and raw materials in question are oil and gas. Made from petrochemicals, the continued use of plastic bags accelerates the depletion of valuable and non-renewable fossil fuels. In addition, the use of these non-renewable resources to produce plastic bags creates greenhouse gases, which are known contributors to global warming. In an attempt to moderate the use of petrochemicals, (biodegradable) bioplastics are being developed but remain a long way off meeting consumer demand.
We all know that our world needs to move towards sustainable living. In line with this we should be able to agree that plastic bags are bad and, for the most part, unnecessary. Countries, regions and cities worldwide are imposing complete bans or restricting their use; but we shouldn’t be dependent upon legislation or regulation to encourage us to act responsibly. In weighing up the short-term convenience with the medium to long-term environmental ramifications, we should be careful to follow the four ‘R’s of sustainable living and waste management:
Refuse: whenever and wherever possible say “no” to plastic bags. Durable and inexpensive re-usable bags are readily available as alternatives, in a variety of materials and sizes.
Reduce: reducing overall consumption is another good start. Consider the life-cycle of every plastic bag you use, choosing those that are biodegradable and made from renewable resources where possible.
Reuse: reuse each plastic bag as often as possible.
Recycle: recycle what you can’t refuse, reduce or reuse, but consider this a last option.
Let’s #CrushPlastic! Click the graphic below for more information.
Photo credit: Reegmo/Flickr