How Have Plastic Bags Negatively Affected the Environment?
The majority of the human population has died out due to unsustainable methods of resource use. All this is in the ancient past, but still, one thing remains: plastic. As the waves roll upon the beach, they hold within their grasp plastic wrappers, containers, but most of all bags. They drift in the wind over America’s great prairies and are caught on rocks at the highest peaks. Animals are seen wrapped in plastic struggling to move and breathe while others lie motionless on the ground having given up the struggle to free themselves.
Society’s descendents can no longer lie on the beach and enjoy the sun due to the thick layer of plastic covering the sand on the Earth’s beaches. Now think about this: is it worth it? The negative effects of the use of thin plastic bags outweigh the positive benefits. As the Earth’s population grows and grows, more and more resources are consumed. Every minute, one million thin plastic bags are consumed worldwide by grocery stores, department stores, and street vendors. Americans alone consume approximately one hundred-two billion bags a year. This means that the average American consumes about five hundred bags each.
Plastic grocery bags are recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Most Ubiquitous Consumer Item in the World”, and Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, stated that “Plastic bags have come to represent the collective sins of the age of plastic” (Doucette 37). The use of plastic and plastic bags is much larger of a problem than what the general public is aware of. Plastic bags were introduced to US supermarkets in 1977 as an alternative to paper. These new bags were cheaper to produce and much stronger than the paper bag which was the most widely used bag in the US prior to 1977.
The even more convenient “t-shirt” style bag was introduced five years later, the style of bag that is still widely used today by the street vendor to the largest grocery store chain. This is what began the “paper or plastic? ” question that was heard in supermarkets everywhere throughout the eighties and nineties. By 1996, four out of every five grocery bags were plastic (“Plastic”). Plastic grocery bags are made from high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which is created by the use of fossil fuels. They are very lightweight, cheap to manufacture, and carry over 1000 times their weight.
This is one of the many reasons why these bags have been so popular for so long, and also, why they are so wasteful. One may put only two or three items in a bag, and give them away as if they were free, which they nearly are, costing only about . 5 cents (“Plastic”). The average lifespan of a grocery bag is only twelve minutes, and the average family uses sixty bags a month. By the time one gets home from the grocery store, the bags in the back seat are nearly ninety in “bag-years”. It is for this reason that every hour, nearly two hundred thousand plastic bags are land filled (“Plastic”).
Early man-made plastics were first created in the 1850’s, though were not widely used until the early to mid 1900’s. In 1916, Rolls Royce began using plastics in its cars, boasting about their new strong, but lightweight technology. Scotch tape used plastics in its products in 1930, and polyethylene, fundamentally the same material used in plastic bags, began being used in radar during World War II. PVC was produced in the UK in the 1940’s as new war technology, and the prototype for the plastic shopping bag was created in the early 1950’s.
Though they were first created in the fifties, they were not used widespread until the late seventies or early eighties (“A History”). The first plastic doll, Barbie, was introduced in 1959. This was a giant breakthrough in the use of plastics; the parents of young girls were flocking to the stores to get their daughters the new plastic Barbie dolls. Silicone breast implants were pioneered successfully in 1962, and Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests, was developed in 1965. Besides plastic bags, there is another plastic item seen everywhere: plastic bottles.
These were introduced in 1973 and have since taken over the soda packaging market. It is hard for one to even find a soda bottle made from glass in the US anymore. An ironic “smart” car made from 90% plastics was created in 1994 and deemed the future of automotives. Recently, the Boeing 787 has been released with a skin made from 100% plastic and an inside which is made up of 50% plastic (“A History”). This jet is called the “Plastic Dream”, but sadly, this dream may soon turn into a nightmare. There are a couple of very fundamental and clearly problematic issues with the use of plastic grocery bags worldwide.
They are not biodegradable, which means that it may take thousands of years or longer for these bags to break down. They are though, photodegradable which means they are broken down by photons, or light energy (“B. Y. O. B. ”). This still takes a very long time, and in areas which receive little to no light, like very cloudy areas or the non photovoltaic levels of the ocean, the bags may not break down at all. This means that if humans are not present by the year four thousand, wildlife may still suffer from human activities long after they are gone. Most plastic bags end up in the ocean and in a variety of different ways.
Because the bags are very lightweight, they float upon the wind quite easily. Ships add to the problem by illegally dumping their waste and garbage into the ocean. The bags are also washed down storm drains and drained into the ocean like many other kinds of pollution. This waste does not just go away, it ends up in garbage dumps in the middle of the ocean. Wind currents blowing over the ocean in a pattern creates gyres, which are large rotating ocean currents. This is where much of the world’s trash ends up: in large rotating garbage dumps in the middle of the world’s oceans (“B. Y.O. B. ”).
These are nicknamed “plastic islands” and can span thousands of square miles. There are several of these islands floating in the Pacific alone, with the largest being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific Gyre as shown in Figure A. Plastics are found in every test sample taken from in or around these areas, and they show that the amount of plastic floating in the ocean is much higher than first thought. One of the most common forms of plastic found in these samples is high density polyethylene, the material thin plastic grocery bags are made from.
There are more plastic fragments created by plastic’s photodegradation in many of these areas than there are plankton, the main food source for many marine animals. Animals mistake the plastic fragments for food fragments and consume them. As these build up the creatures’ stomachs, the animals begin to starve and eventually die. (“B. Y. O. B. ”) Still, many tons of garbage still wash up on beaches worldwide. The International Coastal Clean-Up reported that in the last several years, plastic bags were second only to cigarette butts in beach litter.