The Problem with Plastic Bags and What You Can Do

From grocery stores to restaurants to retail establishments, plastic bags are practically everywhere. While plastic bags make our lives more convenient, they are terrible for the environment.

Plastic bags that aren’t recycled end up in our landfills and waterways, where they pose significant risks to wildlife and humans. Find out about the dangers of plastic bags and what can be done by communities and manufacturers to remedy the problem.

The Impact of Plastic on Natural Resources and Wildlife

Due to their durability, plastics have been used since the 1950s. These plastics are manufactured using petroleum, and this natural resource is not sustainable indefinitely. It has also been reported that some plastics remain intact for many years, meaning they do not biodegrade, but instead cause environmental damage long after they were manufactured.

shopping bagIn addition to the drain on our natural resources, plastic bags are not recycled at a rate high enough to justify their production and widespread usage. Statistics indicate that only 1 percent of plastic bags are actually recycled, leaving the remaining 99 percent to contaminate landfills and natural bodies of water.

Plastic bags not only contribute to the depletion of natural resources, they also pose serous risks to wildlife. Birds and other animals sometimes mistake plastic bags for food, ingest the plastic, and suffer serious health complications as a result. In a marine environment, plastic harms animals in much the same way as land animals, but some face even deeper suffering.

Turtles are at the highest risk of complications and death resulting from ingestion of plastic bags because they often mistake the bags for jellyfish, which are one of their main sources of food. Leatherback sea turtles that ingest plastic bags sometimes experience side effects from bio-accumulates (toxins that build up inside the bodies of living things).

Additionally, side effects can include digestive blockages that hinder their ability to dive for food, causing starvation. In some instances, fish have been discovered with both male and female sex organs due to the excess estrogen production caused by bio-accumulates from plastic bags.

Are Paper Bags Better?

Since plastic bags are so harmful to our environment and dangerous for animals, it may seem that a reasonable alternative would be paper bags. While paper is sometimes biodegradable, it is not necessarily a better choice.

Producing paper bags requires a lot of water. In fact, it uses up to 50 times more water than plastic production does. Additionally, studies have shown that the production of paper creates 70 percent more pollution than plastic bag production.

The number of trees necessary to make paper bags also contributes to air pollution. This is because there are fewer trees left to remove harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Paper bags are also subject to improper or inadequate recycling, and the process can consume more fossil fuels than it would take to produce an entirely new bag. On top of that, the EPA noted that once in landfills, paper bags slowly degrade at a rate similar to that of plastic. This means that while plastic bags are harmful, paper bags are not necessarily a better alternative.

What Can Citizens, Manufacturers, and Retailers Do?

The global impact of plastics on our environment cannot be overlooked, yet many communities do not have a formal plastic bag ban in place. However, though citizens are often not required by local ordinances to stop using plastic bags, many opt to do so on their own.

shopping basketRetailers have also demonstrated their commitment by offering customers incentives for bringing reusable bags to their stores. Stores including Whole Foods, Target, and Trader Joe’s reward customers who use recyclable bags instead of plastic.

The chemical industry responsible for producing plastic bags also needs to take an active role in protecting the environment. This can be done by leading research on safe chemicals that can be used to replace the hazardous chemicals that are currently being used in the process of manufacturing plastic bags.

Citizens can actively work to reduce their use of plastic bags and other disposable plastics including water bottles, plates, and utensils. These items can easily be swapped with reusable items made of stainless steel, biodegradable plastic, or glass.

When shopping, avoid using unnecessary plastic (such as plastic bags to hold produce) and look for items with little or no plastic packaging. Citizens can also help by educating friends and family members about the dangers of plastic bags and advising them on how they can help the environment by reducing their use of these bags.