Plastic shopping bags. They certainly serve a purpose. They are cheap and easy to produce and their light weight makes them ideal to keep shipping costs down. Reused, they make great liners for small trash cans or a convenient way to carry all sorts of things. But an image I will never forget was the very first time I visited a landfill and saw plastic bags clearly visible in every nearby tree looking somewhat a layer of spider webs. Years later, I learned that one of our local landfills even trained a monkey to climb the trees and retrieve these pesky air blown things! It’s not just a problem in landfills. You see them virtually everywhere; on roadsides, stuck in shrubbery and telephone wires, and in bodies of water. Yuck.
Of course, litter is not the only environmental concern with these and obviously this is not a new issue. But, I found it interesting to learn that plastic bags were once seen as the more environmentally friendly alternative to paper bags. More recent reports seem to find both equally as bad and conclude that using reusable bags instead is the much better choice environmentally. The energy and resources required to make just one plastic bag might not be terribly significant, but why are we mass producing and using so many in this country? To me that is the bigger concern.
On June 18th, Los Angeles adopted an ordinance banning the use of plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and some retailers. This will make Los Angeles the largest city in the United States to implement a single-use ban. Though California has been among the most progressive states in enacting environmental policy, Los Angeles is not alone in banning plastic shopping bags. Chicago, Aspen, and Eugene, Oregon have also implemented similar bans. Many others are also looking into charging a fee on bags. To most in the United States this seems like a drastic measure. However, it’s common practice among many European countries. The cultural norm is you bring your bag with you when you go shopping, or you often have to pay for one at the store. It makes perfect sense, after all plastic bags are not free. But here in the United States where putting items in a bag when purchased is common practice (often even if you are only purchasing one item that could easily be carried out), we don’t think about the cost because the cost is already included in everything we purchase! We are paying for it, like it or not.
Because of the cultural norm being so different in the U.S., naturally there is a lot of resistance in this country for a ban. Other states, like New York, have tried the less progressive approach to increase the recycling of plastic bags by requiring retailers to offer a recycling programs to their customers. The effectiveness of these programs is questionable and don’t reduce the number of plastic bags produced.
Colleges and Universities have looked at the issue. Tufts, California State University of Long Beach, University of Oregon, and Ithaca College have all lobbied to ban bags and actively encourage the use of reusable bags. Earlier this year, the University of Rochester’s Team Green began a similar campaign to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. Although there was some support, those who were against this idea were quite adamant. You will see quite the debate in the comments of our blog post on the topic. I wonder if there would be the same amount of push-back for a ban on bags? I tend to think that people are a bit more passionate when it comes to food and beverages. But, there is definitely a large number of people who believe in their right to choose and want to preserve that right, regardless of what the issue is. A strict ban on anything would be out of the question for these invidiuals.
Perhaps a compromise could be reached at the University some day, or a campaign to promote reusable bags on campus will begin. Plastic bags are most definitely ending up in our waste stream and we pay to have them hauled to a landfill. A few small student initiatives to collect and recycle bags have been formed, with not much impact. In my opinion, the way to be more successful is through source reduction. While I do not believe that banning plastic bags altogether is the ultimate answer, I’m all for doing it in campus setting.
By Amy Kadrie, Recycling Coordinator
One of our best modern-day conveniences has become a threat. Plastic bags have been a big part of our lives for a long time that many of us don’t give them a second thought – but we should. Plastic bags are environmentally unfriendly in so many ways. We need to practice saying NO when offered a plastic bag to carry our goods from the shop. Every time you say no to a plastic bag and use a re-usable bag, you are helping to reduce society's reliance on petrochemicals and also helping to save marine animals.
Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, which is derived from ethylene, a gas that is produced as a by-product of oil, gas and coal production. In 2002, the Australian Government undertook a study to determine the energy cost of producing plastic bags. They concluded that after one year of grocery shopping, at ten bags per trip, the energy consumption would be 210 magajoules, the equivalent of 6.6 litres of petrol or 6.06 kg of CO2 emissions. In the US, plastic bag production accounts for 5% of their petroleum consumption. It might not sound like a super lot, but consider that factor being multiplied for worldwide use of these bags.
Once we’ve converted our natural resources into one of these ugly bags, they take hundreds of years to disintegrate. Many of them end up in our waterways and oceans polluting the environment and killing birds, fish and other marine animals. These animals often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them, or they are caught up in them and drown.
Our oceans have been accumulating a whole range of plastic and non-biodegradable garbage. The amount of plastic waste is so high that it is coalescing into islands of garbage, that are often referred to as ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ or ‘The trash Vortex’ - not what you imagine when you think of an island and not somewhere you would want to spend your next holiday.
The Pacific Trash Vortex is an area that spans 696,200 km2 in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s estimated that it contains six kilos of plastic for every kilo of natural plankton. This mass is the size of two states of Victoria put together and comprises plastic, slow degrading garbage, chemical sludge, dead fish, marine mammals, and birds. It swirls a disgusting dance in a continuously expanding clockwise spiral. Some of these plastics will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw them away.
Some hard hitting facts:
- There are estimates that plastic bags kill 100,000 whales, seals and other marine creatures each year.
- Plastic bags have a lifespan of between 20 and 1000 years. In Australia, we use around seven billion plastic bags annually.
- 21,000 tonnes of plastic is disposed of in landfill sites throughout Australia every year.
- The Trash Vortex in the North Pacific Ocean is an area the size of Texas.
There is a solution to our global reliance on plastic bags - biodegradable bags.
Biodegradable bags are made from renewable, organic material such as cornstarch. They can be composted, reducing landfill waste and they break down quickly, reducing the danger to marine life. To be internationally classed as biodegradable, a bag must break down within twelve weeks and be fully degraded within six months. When these bags break down they produce methane, which is not ideal, but is a small price to pay to reduce plastic bag waste.
You might think fine, we can use paper bags, but this comes with a large environmental cost of its own. Paper bags are either made from trees (and we all know that’s not great) or they are made from recycled paper - which is better, but still not fantastic. During the recycling phase, a lot of water is used, as are toxic chemicals.
The best way to go seems to be with a bag that can be reused many, many times. Some reasonable alternatives are:
- Calico bags
- Polypropylene or 'Green' bags
- Biodegradable starch based bags
- Jute bags
- Hessian bags
So what can you do with the plastic bags you already have at home? If you’re like me, you have drawers full of them just in case. They can be recycled. Take them to your local supermarket and place them in the bins allocated - they can’t be recycled through your weekly garbage. The plastic is recycled into composite lumber and plastic pellets - the pellets are then used to make other bags, containers, crates or pipes.
Reusable bags are easy to get a hold of - they sell them at most supermarkets, if not all. This is such an easy way to do your little bit to reduce carbon emissions and save a marine animal or two. Reject the plastic bag now so our children aren’t wading through them at the beach tomorrow.
So what else can we do to reduce the use of plastic bags?
- Use reusable bags when you shop.
- Use garbage-free lunchboxes.
- Avoid using things once only.
- Use a bamboo toothbrush. And see what else you can replace with non plastic alternatives around the house and in your life.
- Avoid buying fruits and meats on plastic trays that are covered in cling wrap.
- Try to buy glass or tinned products instead of plastic containers.
- Recycle your plastics (here's a guide to what can and can't be recycled).
- When you go to the beach take 3 pieces of garbage with you when you leave.
- Join the Ban The Bag campaign.
Want to find out more?
Dionne Lister was born and raised in Sydney and apart from some minor overseas travel hasn’t moved anywhere else. She met her husband through surfing however has had no time for that lately because of her two young children, kindly bestowed upon her by said husband.
She is sensible and works to earn money, however loves writing in her spare time and wishes, as most creative people do, that she could earn her living from such a past-time. Dionne hopes her articles are informative and entertaining and would love some adoring fan-mail ;-) or visit her blog.