our purchased goods when we go shopping. They are a part of our modern lives, and we don’t tend to think much about them. However, this convenience of plastic shopping bags carries with it a very high cost to the environment and also negatively affects human health.
Because there are so many negative impacts from the use of plastic shopping bags, many cities and countries from around the world have already put plastic bag bans in place. The following are a number of reasons why local and national governments should consider instituting bans on plastic bags.
These amazing animals should be protected, not hunted!
- Plastic bags pollute our land and water. Because they are so lightweight, plastic bags can travel long distances by wind and water. They litter our landscapes, get caught in fences and trees, float around in waterways, and can eventually make their way into the world’s oceans.
- Plastic bags are made from non-renewable resources and contribute to climate change. The majority of plastic bags are made of polypropylene, a material that is made from petroleum and natural gas. Both of these materials are non-renewable fossil fuel-based resources and through their extraction and production, they create greenhouse gases, which contribute to global climate change.
The production of these bags is also very energy intensive. To produce nine plastic bags, it takes the equivalent energy to drive a car one kilometer (more than 0.5 miles).
Using these non-renewable resources to make plastic bags is very short-sighted, considering that the typical useful life of each plastic bag is about 12 minutes .
- Plastic bags never break down. Petroleum-based plastic bags do not truly degrade. What does occur is that when out in the environment, the plastic breaks up into tiny little pieces that end up in the ocean to be consumed by wildlife. Today, there are an estimated 46,000-1,000,000 plastic fragments floating within every square mile of our world’s oceans .
- Plastic bags are harmful to wildlife and marine life. Plastic bags and their associated plastic pieces are often mistaken for food by animals, birds, and marine life like fish and sea turtles. The consumed plastic then congests the digestive tracts of these animals, and can lead to health issues such as infections and even death by suffocation. Animals can also easily become entangled in this plastic .
- Plastic bags are harmful to human health. Plastic fragments in the ocean such as those from plastic bags can absorb pollutants like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) and PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are known to be hormone-disrupting chemicals . When marine organisms consume plastics in our oceans, these chemicals can make their way through the ocean’s food web and then into humans who eat fish and other marine organisms.
- Plastic bags are costly to pay for and to clean up after. While we may not pay for plastic bags directly when we go shopping, they are anything but “free.” Plastic bags cost about 3-5 cents each, and that cost is then incorporated into prices of the items sold at stores. The cost of plastic bag cleanup is about 17 cents per bag, and on average, taxpayers end up paying about $88 per year just on plastic bag waste. So that “free” plastic bag isn’t so free after all.
- Plastic bags are not easy to recycle. As plastic bags tend to get caught in recycling machinery, most recycling facilities do not have the capacity to recycle plastic bags and therefore do not accept them. As a result, the actual recycling rate for plastic bags is about 5%.
- Plastic bags have external costs. Beyond the costs associated with the production and purchasing of plastic bags by retailers, there are many external costs that are often not considered. These costs include the true environmental costs of resource extraction and depletion, quality of life loss, economic loss from littering, and wildlife loss. Sadly, such costs are typically not included in most economic analyses, but nonetheless, these negative impacts are very real.
- There are better alternatives available, and jobs to go with them! Once a person gets into the habit of bringing reusable bags when shopping, it is not much of an inconvenience at all. Reusable shopping bags are very durable and can be reused many times over the course of their useful life. The manufacturing of reusable bags is also another opportunity to create sustainable products and the jobs that go with them.
- Other governments are banning plastic bags, so yours should too… or at least make people pay for them. To date, more than 40 countries and municipalities around the world have instituted plastic bag bans. The United Nations Environmental Programme Secretariat has recommended a ban on all plastic bags globally.
For those governments that are opposed to full bans on plastic bags, another option is to institute a plastic bag tax, where consumers would pay a small fee for each plastic bag. This strategy has been proven to greatly reduce plastic bag usage by consumers.
In Ireland, where this fee was instituted in 2002, plastic bag usage has been decreased by about 90% . Several other countries and cities are now also considering such a tax, including the UK, Australia and New York City.
Maybe you’re not ready to break up with plastic altogether, but there are some low-hanging fruit that can make a big difference in reducing the amount of disposable plastic in your life.
Although recycling can help reduce the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills, waterways and ecosystems, only a few types of plastics can be recycled by most municipal governments. The fraction that does get recycled still requires a lot of energy and water which just isn’t a good proposition when it comes to single-use items. Plastic garbage that ends up in landfills and oceans take hundreds of years to degrade, and there’s increasing concern about the toxins they release into the environment.
But in our modern lives, plastic surrounds us and cutting it out can seem daunting. Below are some super easy ways to get started.
1. Bring your own shopping bag
The usefulness of these thin and easily ripped bags is extremely limited, yet according to one estimate, somewhere between five billion and one trillion plastic bags are used each year around the world. Although free to shoppers, these bags have a high environmental cost and are one of the most ubiquitous forms of garbage. Bringing your own plastic bag is common but good environmental advice, such good advice that some governments implemented policies to encourage more people to do it. Disposable shopping bags have been banned in a number of cities, like San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
In addition to bigger carryall bags, you can further reduce waste by bringing your own reusable produce bags or skipping them entirely.
2. Stop buying bottled water
Unless there’s some kind of contamination crisis, plastic water bottles are an easy target for reducing waste. Instead, keep a refillable bottle handy.
3. Bring your own thermos to the coffee shop
Speaking of refillable, bringing your own thermos for to-go coffee is another way to reduce your plastic footprint. Disposable coffee cups might look like paper but they’re usually lined with polyethylene, a type of plastic resin. In theory these materials can be recycled, but most places lack the infrastructure to do so. Then there are lids, stirrers, and coffee vendors that still use polystyrene foam cups—which can all be avoided with your own mug.
4. Choose cardboard over plastic bottles and bags
Generally speaking, it’s easier to recycle cardboard than plastic, plus paper products tend to biodegrade more easily without adding a lot of weight to the product the way glass or aluminum can. So, when you have the choice, pick pasta in the box instead of pasta in a bag, or detergent in the box instead of the bottle. Even better would be to check for companies that source their cardboard sustainably or have a strong stance on deforestation.
5. Say no to straws
Whether for home use or when you’re ordering a drink at a bar or restaurant, plastic straws are often a single-use item that's just not necessary.
6. Get the plastic off your faceMuch of the plastic that’s polluting the oceans is microplastics, tiny chunks that are next to impossible to filter out. These plastics can come from bigger items breaking down, but they are also commonly added to consumer products like face wash and toothpaste. These little beads are intended to be exfoliators, but many wastewater treatment facilities aren’t able to stop them. There are many biodegradable alternatives, so avoid items with “polypropylene” or “polyethylene” on the ingredients list or consider making your own.
7. Skip the disposable razor
Instead of tossing a plastic razor in the trash every month, consider switching to a razor that lets your replace just the blade or even a straight razor.
8. Switch from disposable diapers to cloth
If you’ve got a young baby, you know how many diapers can end up in the trash each day. TreeHugger writers are pretty big fans of the the reusable cloth option, read Michael Graham Richard’s experience with them as a new dad and Katherine Martinko’s recommended brands.
9. Make your period waste-free
There are a number of non-disposable options out there to cut down on period waste, from the Diva Cup, to the Ruby Cup to DIY-with-pride reusable pads. All these choices reduce incredible amount of packaging that most pads and tampons are encased in. If you’re not in a situation where giving up tampons is an option, consider skipping brands with plastic applicators.
10. Re-think your food storage
Plastic baggies, plastic wrap, and plastic storage containers are worth re-evaluating. Instead of sandwich baggies, why not pack a bento box or a cute tiffin (shown at the top of this post) for lunch? Instead of throwing away plastic zipper bags or wrapping things in Saran wrap, why not use jars or glass containers in the fridge? When it comes to carryout, these types of containers be used instead of disposable ones—although it can definitely take a bit of courage and some explaining to help your local restaurants to understand.
11. Shop in bulk
For many households, the majority of plastic waste is generated in the kitchen. So one of the best ways to reduce the packaging waste madness is to bring your own bags and containers and stock up on bulk foods. Shopping with jars is a great option, and keep your eye out for brands with refilling stations, like Ariston oils and Common Good cleaners.
Was all of this too easy? Are you already taking these steps and looking for ways to reduce waste in your life even more? Then check out more of our stories about Zero Waste living!