What’s wrong with plastic bags?
You’ve probably seen and heard a lot about plastic lately, especially disposable plastic bags. We’ve been using them since the 1960’s, so why are plastic bags suddenly the bad guys?
Plastic use has become an epidemic: more than one trillion plastic bags are manufactured every year and they take up to a thousand years to disintegrate. What happens to all those discarded plastic bags and what harm do they cause?
Top three reasons to ditch the plastic
There are three main problems with plastic bags: they cause environmental harm, have a negative impact on our health and they cost money.
Environmental harm of plastics
You see them everywhere you go. Discarded plastic bags blow around in streets, parks and fields and float on lakes, rivers and shorelines causing an unsightly mess in the local neighborhood.
As well as looking ugly, plastic bags cause major environmental disasters. In 1989 and 1998 Bangladesh suffered catastrophic floods that submerged two thirds of the country. A major cause of the flooding was plastic bags clogging up the water and sewage systems.
Wildlife is also suffering the consequences of our discarded plastic bags in their environment. Plastic bags cause the deaths of more than one million sea birds every year and an estimated 100,000 dolphins, sharks, turtles and whales are killed by suffocating on or ingesting plastic bags.
Worse still, instead of decomposing, plastic breaks down into ever smaller pieces. It’s estimated that every square mile of ocean contains around 46,000 pieces of floating plastic, and 44 percent of all seabird species, 22 percent of cetaceans, all sea turtle species and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies.
But it’s not only the disposal of plastic bags that’s a problem. Approximately 8 - 10 percent of the total oil supply is used to make plastic, with an estimated 12 million barrels of oil a year used to manufacture plastic bags used in the US. This industry creates greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and contributes to global climate change.
Health impacts of plastics
Since we humans also live in the environment, our health is impacted by the environmental damage caused by plastic bags.
Incidents such as the Bangladesh floods have a major impact on human health, increasing the incidence of water-borne diseases and destroying crops, homes and infrastructure.
The small plastic particles that are accumulating in marine life are polluting our food chain. Plastic bags are a source of dioxin, an endocrine disruptor, which causes gender mutations in fish and in the animals that eat fish, like seals and polar bears. When we eat fish and seafood, we also absorb these plastic chemicals, some of which have been found to alter hormones or have other human health effects.
Costs of plastics
When they are handed out ‘free of charge’, retailers build the cost of plastic bags into their profit margins – so consumers are really paying for them anyway! A growing number of countries and cities have introduced a ‘plastic bag tax’, so it often costs a few cents extra to buy a bag, but this is an insignificant sum compared with the social and environmental costs.
The manufacture of plastic bags depletes the global supply of oil and hastens the onset of global warming, which threatens the sustainability of life on this planet – that’s a pretty big price to pay!
The global cost of removing all the discarded plastic bags from the environment is almost incalculable. In 2004, the City of San Francisco estimated the cost of clean-up and landfill for the 50 million bags used annually in that city alone as $8.49 million/year, or 17 cents per bag.
The cost of habitat loss due to our use of disposable plastic bags is also immeasurable. From areas of land and ocean used for oil extraction and refining, to landfill sites to dispose of our waste and the pollution of ocean environments, useful habitat for flora and fauna is being destroyed daily. The cost of losing species forever is largely unknown, but the value of nature's ‘ecosystem services’, such as the pollination of crops and carbon sinks, has been estimated at between $2 trillion and $6 trillion.
No matter why you do it – do it!
The consequences of using plastic bags reach far beyond what we experience in our daily lives. Whether you do it for yourself or others, for your local environment or global ecosystems, for wildlife or for future generations, stop using plastic bags.
There are lots of great alternatives – see how you can change the world by changing your bag: Best Alternatives