In many countries all over the world, including Slovakia, it is common practice to use plastic bags almost everywhere. If you go to a supermarket and want to buy fruit, vegetables or pastry, you need to pack them into a plastic bag. If you go shopping for clothes, there are only a few shops where you can get a paper bag. There could be many more examples of how our lives are full of plastic bags. Here is a little bit of facts:
- According to the Earth Policy Institute, over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide and about 2 million plastic bags are used every minute around the world;
- Approximately 32 million tons of plastic waste are generated annually, representing 12,7 % of total municipal solid waste, Environmental Protection Agency says;
- According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans use and throw away 100 billion plastic bags every year, which requires 12 million barrels of oil per year to manufacture.
Why Is Using Plastic Bags so Bad?
The problem consists in the fact that they pose a serious threat to the environment. Plastic waste is very dangerous for the nature and it needs to be treated properly and recycled. However, a large portion of this waste ends in the streets, illegal landfills, forests, rivers, seas and oceans. But how can nature cope with this waste if it is not biodegradable? Well, I think that the answer is obvious. Now I would like to mention some of the negative impacts of plastic bags on the environment.
Plastic Bag Litter
Many people try to be responsible and put used plastic bags into trash cans. However, if it is windy outside, there is a big chance that the litter is carried away by the wind. Since the bag itself is not biodegradable, it tends to stay where it lands and thus pollutes water and soil and also endangers animals. In this way, we pollute the environment even if it is not our intention. Apart from this, there are also many people who deliberately throw plastic bags to places where they do not belong, such as streets, forests, rivers, beaches, etc. Their irresponsible behaviour makes the whole problem even worse.
The Effects of Plastic Bags in Rivers, Oceans and Seas
Many scientists have tried to estimate how many plastic bags can be found in our rivers, oceans and seas. These estimates tend to vary, but even the most optimistic ones seem frightening (e.g. it is estimated that there approximately 300 million plastic bags can be found in the Atlantic Ocean). Areas of slow spiralling water and low winds where plastic bags tend to accumulate together with other waste are called gyres. Waste is also commonly accumulated along coastlines. There are 5 major ocean gyres worldwide. In the Pacific Ocean, the North Pacific Gyre is home to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a large area with debris extending 20 feet (6 meters) down into the water column. Gyres can be found also in other oceans.
Plastic bags are very dangerous for sea life – any animal can easily mistake the size, shape and texture of the plastic bag for a meal and subsequently die slowly from toxicity or intestinal blockage. Moreover, many animals directly suffocate when the bags block their airways. As many animals die, whole balance of water, sea and ocean ecosystems is corrupted and this can lead to major problems.
The Effects of Plastic Bags on Land
As I have already mentioned, it takes a very long time for a plastic bag to breakdown. For this reason, every single bag that was left in a forest or somewhere else in the nature poses a threat to the natural progression of wildlife. The same as in the case of sea animals, animals living in forests and other land areas can suffocate by these bags or can hurt their health by eating them. Plastic bags are quite commonly mistaken for food by animals, especially when the bags carry food residues, are brightly coloured or are animated by the movement of air or water.
During the manufacturing of plastic bags, a large portion of energy is consumed. The level is the highest in case of “normal” plastic bags, while it is the lowest in case of biodegradable plastic bags. However, biodegradable bags emit marginally more carbon dioxide as they decompose. This means that in spite of the fact that they are able to decompose, the process of their decomposition is not as eco-friendly as it could seem.
Alternatives to Plastic Bags
After reading about all negative facts about plastic bags and even biodegradable plastic bags, a question comes to my mind: “Is there any eco-friendly option?” Many shops started to offer their customers paper bags. But how many trees need to be cut down so that we could carry our shopping? Well, many of them. So for me the best alternative is to buy reusable cloth bags. Nowadays, these bags are recommended by majority of environmental supporters.
Ban on plastic bags?
Governments all over the world are taking steps against the use of plastic bags in order to help the environment. For example, plastic bags are banned in Arizona. The EU is also trying to reduce the use of plastic bags. This year, the 28 EU member states gave their final approval to new rules regarding plastic bags. EU member states are required to reduce the use of flimsy plastic bags by 80 % by 2025 and they are free to choose the way by which they reach this goal.
And what about other states? Many discussions have taken place regarding plastic bags in various countries and we can only hope that they will bring positive results and that the negative impact of plastic waste on the environment will decrease.
Author: Mária Chlebecová