Plastic Bags: useful but hazardous

8 August 2016

Have you ever wondered where the term, “paper or plastic” came from? In 1977, Gordon Dancy revolutionized the consumer experience by inventing the plastic bag to replace the paper bag (Turner & Sutton, 2012). His intention was to save the trees that would need to be cut down to create paper bags; however in his quest for environmental preservation, he inadvertently created a worse evil. Plastic bags are everywhere; it is almost impossible to make a purchase today without receiving our items in a plastic bag, but how many of use save our plastic bags for reuse?

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Plastic bags are made from natural gas and petroleum (non-biodegradable materials); which means that they are a relatively permanent fixture on the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one trillion plastic bags are used per year globally; and of these, less than five percent is recycled. Every year thousands of marine animals and birds die from ingesting plastic bags or becoming entangled in them (Warner, 2010). These are horrendous statistics, especially when you consider the fact that plastic bags are an unnecessary invention.

Plastic bags may be convenient and economical to use, but they also have far-reaching consequences on the environment and especially marine wildlife; and their use should be discontinued altogether in favour of equally affordable, sustainable and biodegradable alternatives. Plastic bags are a relatively permanent fixture on the environment, and through irresponsible disposal practices, they have wreaked enormous havoc on the planet’s natural balance. They are made from non-renewable resources and therefore do not biodegrade.

As such, disposal has become an environmentalist’s nightmare- there simply isn’t enough space in the landfills for them (that is, providing they get to the landfills in the first place! ); and only a fraction of them get recycled (Warner, 2010). Because of their lightweight nature, bags blow away easily. Plastic bags are an eyesore on the landscape, and when ultra-violet rays of the sun break them down into smaller pieces (photodegrading), small animals ingest them and die. Plastic bag pollution also affects our oceans, when they enter through waterways.

Ocean currents have created at least five garbage islands in our oceans to date, and plastics account for the majority of the debris they comprise (Turner and Sutton, 2012). These garbage islands cover several million square kilometers, and are constantly increasing in size (Turner and Sutton, 2012). Marine animals bear the brunt of their devastating presence. Garbage islands affect surrounding habitats; latent heat production; and water quality. Animals also mistake them for food, and consequently die.

There have been many reported cases of whales being washed up on shore, with great amounts of plastic bags in their stomachs (Tremlett, 2013). Turtles, seagulls, and even seals become entangled in them and suffocate. Plastic bags release toxic chemicals into the water, and block out sunlight, causing eutrophication. This disrupts the ecological balance of the ocean, which in turn results in death for marine life (Turner and Sutton, 2012). Recent studies suggest that plankton are ingesting tiny pieces of plastic, and their toxic properties are being passed along the food chain.

This means that humans may be regularly ingesting contaminated fish (Warner, 2010). All these harrowing consequences of plastic bag consumption demand a resolution soon. Recycling is not a viable option- the very process of recycling releases the same greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as its production does (Warner, 2010). Burning releases these chemicals as well. There have been many attempts by countries to regulate plastic bag use, with varying success. In 2008 in China, a regulation was introduced requiring retailers to charge customers for their plastic bags.

This measure aimed to discourage its use, but initial protest of the regulation gave way to reluctant acceptance; and four years later, consumers in China do not mind paying for their plastic bag totes when they make a purchase (He, 2012). Compare this with Australia, where plastic bags have been banned, and continued use can incur heavy fines (Government of South Australia, 2011). The Australians have had great success with the implementation of this ban, and consumers there are making use of safer alternatives, such as compostable bags made from cornstarch, paper bags, cloth totes, and cardboard boxes (e. g. at the supermarket). There are several alternatives to plastic bags that are far less destructive to the environment; and while regulation of its use is commendable, there should be a complete stoppage. Plastic bags are an unnecessary and dangerous invention. There are too many equally affordable, sustainable and biodegradable alternatives to continue producing these silent killers. As the statistics show, regulation of its use serves only as a temporary deterrent. An outright ban of the plastic bag is needed to save the planet from being completely run over by them.

Plastic bags were invented as an option to protect the environment, but have evolved into a bigger catastrophe than the one they were intended to avoid. As the case of Southern Australia shows us, it is possible to phase out plastic bag totes in favour of compostable, re-usable alternatives; and the governments of the world should take note and follow suit. If this is not done soon, environmental consequences will continue and increase; and we risk leaving a dangerous and irreversible legacy for future generations.

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