I was out walking the dogs one evening a few months ago and almost dropped down dead with fright when I saw a ghost glowing in a tree as I came around the corner onto our street.
It turns out it was just a bunch of plastic bags caught in a tree, backlit by a nearby streetlamp.
Two things initially sprang to mind:
However, the next day it got me thinking, why are plastic bags bad, and does the U.S. really have a plastic bag problem?
If you look around your neighborhood, you will see that the problem is much worse than you might think and MUCH closer to home!
According to Penn State University, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags every year, with only 1-3% of plastic bags being recycled annually. They are a major part of the global plastic waste problem.
Plastic bags are made from oil, a non-renewable natural resource and a significant contributor to climate change. It’s estimated that it takes approximately 12 million barrels of oil to make the 100 billion plastic bags trashed in the U.S. every year.
A standard plastic bag will take about 1,000 years to biodegrade fully. During that time, it will leach all sorts of nasty chemicals into whatever ground or water it has found as its final resting place.
With stats like that, is it any wonder that discarded plastic bag waste is becoming one of the most common types of litter in the U.S.?
Here are some of the ways plastic bags harm humans.
Plastic bags can build up in drainage systems and cause blockages, leading to floods. This is a widespread issue in developing countries. For example, there are floods every monsoon season in Bangladesh due to sewer blockages caused by plastic bags.
Plastic bag-related floods also happen frequently in the U.S. Not as often as in Bangladesh, but it still happens far too often.
These floods can damage property and endanger lives. They can wash away chemicals from roads and fields and spread them far and wide. Into drinking water reservoirs, for example.
It is inevitable that plastic pollution ends up in our tap water. When plastic bags find their way into reservoirs, they eventually start to break down. This potentially causes toxic chemicals to be released from the plastic bags into drinking water supplies.
In 2018 The Guardian reported that microplastic had been found in human stools for the first time. The report’s author estimated that over 50% of the world’s human population had some form of microplastic in their system.
Scary stuff, but not really surprising when you consider the state of some oceans and waterways.
Plastic bags are not easy to recycle. The three-arrow recyclable symbol found on plastic bags in the U.S. was designed to reassure consumers that the plastic bags they’re buying are recyclable. This is really nothing more than a marketing trick. There is currently no strict regulation of the symbol, and every state has different guidelines on what it can and cannot recycle.
Many of the plastic bags sent off to be recycled in good faith by the American people simply cannot be recycled. Instead, they either end up in landfill or are put on a boat and sent to Asia as someone else’s problem.
Workers processing U.S. plastic trash in Asia often have to endure harsh sweatshop working conditions and are exposed to dangerous toxins given off when the plastic bags are melted down.
Aesthetic concerns regarding plastic bags ruining the look of towns, cities, and rural locations could be considered rather superficial or trivial. However, dig a little deeper, and the problem is more serious.
After the issues we’ve all had with COVID-19, it’s more important than ever that we look after our mental health.
Green spaces are great for relaxing and relieving stress. We’re less likely to want to spend an hour in the park or walk the dog along the river if we have to wade through rivers of plastic bags.
Many retailers now charge for plastic bags in an attempt to encourage customers to bring their own.
Even if your local shop is giving away free plastic bags, there are still significant hidden costs.
Plastic bags cost retailers around 4 cents each. Not a massive cost on the face of it. However, when you consider how many free plastic bags some retailers might get through, the cost soon adds up. The retailer needs to recoup this cost somehow. The easiest and most common way is to add a few cents to the price of every item they sell.
There are also costs invoiced when plastic bags reach the end of their life. Someone has to pay for the cleanup (waste collection, litter picks, landfill processing, etc.).
According to Sierra Club, “Cleanup of plastic bags is also costly to taxpayers. California spends an estimated $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags, and public agencies spend more than $500 million annually in litter cleanup”.
Just think of the hundreds of community projects crying out for funding that could use a slice of the $500 million wasted on plastic bag cleanups every year.
That free plastic bag is not sounding so free anymore, is it?
The majority of the earth’s wildlife can be found in the oceans. This is also where a vast amount of discarded plastic bags end up. So it stands to reason that plastic bag waste is impacting humans and animals as well.
Countless plastic bags can be found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This floating pile of plastic debris covers an area of water from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The plastic debris and plastic bag litter in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are causing harm and death to marine animals daily.
Marine animals cannot always see plastic bags and other plastic waste. They inadvertently get entangled in them, eventually leading to death.
Animals who live near the ocean but not in it are also at risk. Sea birds, for example, can become entangled in plastic bags and then drown because they can no longer fly properly.
Marine animals often mistake plastic bags for food. According to the University of Queensland, 52% of sea turtles worldwide have been found to have eaten plastic debris, which can look very similar to jellyfish, their usual source of food..
It’s not just sea turtles mistaking plastic bags for food. In 2019 a 15ft, 1,100lb dead whale was found to have over 88lbs of plastic waste in its stomach.
If fish eat small pieces of broken-up plastic bags and other microplastics and are then caught for human consumption, this can’t be great for long-term human health.
Plastic bags are not only killing ocean animals. A staggering number of cows die in India from eating plastic bags. The cow population in India is vast due to them being considered sacred animals, and trash is collected infrequently. In 2008 many cows were dying with “more than 50, 60 bags” in their stomachs.
When an animal eats plastic bags, it causes blockages. This, in turn, results in the animal not being able to digest food, and they die a slow, painful death.
Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth. They’re home to a wide range of aquatic lifeforms. If we lost the coral reefs, the plant would be in big trouble.
This 2018 report estimates that losing coral reefs to diseases linked to plastic bags and other plastic waste could cost the U.S. $375 billion in lost revenue from goods and services.
It’s difficult not to point fingers at the plastics industry when looking for someone to blame for the plastic bag mess we now find ourselves in.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) is a body protecting the business interests of large companies such as Chevron, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, and Shell. The ACC works tirelessly to protect the plastic industry to ensure its market share and profits stay high. They spend millions of dollars on lobbying every year. The ACC is publicly in favor of single-use plastic bags and has even claimed that paper bags are more damaging to the environment than plastic bags.
Many countries worldwide have introduced a charge for new plastic bags to encourage consumers to reuse their old plastic bags. However, the ACC has successfully lobbied for these charges not to be introduced in many U.S. states.
In 2010 California rejected a ban on plastic bags after intense lobbying from the ACC.
In 2002 Bangladesh became the first country to ban lightweight single-use plastic bags.
Here in the U.S., we’ve been much slower in the uptake, thanks in no small part to the ACC, but it looks like we’re starting to get our act together.
Due to a lack of governmental regulation of plastic bags in the U.S., many states have taken matters into their own hands to stem the tide on plastic waste.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first American city to ban plastic bags. This was only in specific stores, not statewide, but it was a good starting point as similar plastic bag bans now exist in North Carolina and Portland.
Health food giant, Whole Foods Market, stopped using plastic bags in all its stores in 2008.
In 2010, Washington, D.C. started charging for new plastic bags. An initiative that saw plastic bag usage fall from 22.5 million to 3 million per month.
Many other cities across the U.S. already have legislation in place, with more coming into force all the time, despite the best efforts of the ACC!
Every community, city, or state that takes it upon themselves to take action on plastic bag usage is awesome!
BUT, there is always more to be done, and, as always, you can make a big difference.
Here are a few ways you can help make a difference in your local community and beyond:
Reuse old carrier bags every time you go shopping. Keep reusing them until they come to the end of their life and then recycle them as responsibly as possible.
If you’re forgetful, make sure you have a stash of old plastic bags in your handbag, gym bag, school bag, coat, car, etc. This way, you will always have a bag to hand when you need one.
Once your stash of old plastic bags has been used up, buy reusable bags that can be used for many years. Ensure that your reusable bags are made from sustainable materials. Cotton or jute bags are usually the best.
If you have any old boxes or crates lying around the house/yard, it might be a good idea to keep a couple in the back of the car for when you need to do an impromptu big shop.
If you’ve hoarded a mountain of plastic bags over the years and feel you’ll never be able to reuse them all, consider donating some to a local thrift store. Then, when a customer at the store asks for plastic bags, they’re reusing with zero effort.
Never throw plastic bags in the trash. All the national grocery retailers (Kroger, Safeway, Target, Walmart, etc.) will now recycle your plastic bags if your local authority can’t.
Most communities will have some form of organized litter picking event at least once a year. Go along and help remove plastic bags and other waste from public sidewalks, parks, beaches, etc.
If there is nothing like this being organized where you live, maybe consider organizing one yourself. Or even just go out on your own and clean up a small section of park or coastline.
People need to know the truth about plastic bags so they can also change their habits for the good of the planet.
Buy friends and family responsibly made and ethically sourced reusable shopping bags for their birthday or Christmas. It might get a strange reaction at first, but if it starts a conversation and helps them reduce their plastic bags usage, then it will have been worth it.
For more tips on how you can do more, check out our How To Be More Eco-Friendly article.
I feel this boils down to habit. Humans don’t like change. We’ve been automatically taking a free plastic bag for years, and it’s now difficult to change that mindset. Some people are more resistant to change than others and get angry when told what to do, even when it’s clearly the right thing to do.
Some people and organizations (the ACC in particular!) claim there are a bunch of reasons why banned plastic bags is actually a bad idea. These include:
Some of these are valid points. However, the benefits of banning plastic bags far outweigh the disadvantages. Surely, reusing old plastic bags or carrying a jute bag every time you shop is a small price to pay to save animals from a slow and painful death and keep microplastic out of our food chain?
The plastic bag problem has come about in the U.S. because consumers are using them excessively, and the government legislations on plastic bags tend to be slow and ineffective.
Apart from making it easy for you to get your groceries home, plastic bags have zero positive impact, but they have many negative consequences. Plastic bags are a menace to society and nature, and they need to be banned.
We, as eco-minded consumers, need to take matters into our own hands by eliminating our use of plastic bags and then educating others to do the same.
Then hopefully, government agencies will follow suit, and more plastic bag legislation will follow.
It’s all too easy to say yes when a cashier asks if you need a bag. With a small amount of forward-thinking, we can all get into the habit of carrying a reusable bag and saying no to free plastic shopping bags, which REALLY aren’t very free at all!