There are some environmental issues that are controversial, and others that are pretty much clear-cut. The ecological impact of plastic bags is one of the latter.
It has been estimated that Americans alone use a staggering hundred billion plastic bags every year. In theory, they are recyclable and shouldn’tcause a major problem. The bad news is that the number that are actually recycled is estimated at less than five percent – and probably more like a feeble two or three percent. That leaves a lot of plastic bags out there littering the environment and causing a significant eco hazard.
The eco disasters and damage caused by plastic bags worldwide has led to outright bans in several countries. Plastic bags clogging storm drains and sewers caused serious flooding in Bangladesh ten years ago and have been outlawed. Apart from the threat to cities and humans, the impact on both marine and terrestrial wildlife is appalling, with unnecessary and horrible deaths resulting from entanglement in or ingestion of our litter. In landfill, even the flimsiest plastic shopping bag can take decades or even centuries to biodegrade and disintegrate.
The alternatives are simple. The ideal is reusable bags made of fabric such as hemp, jute, cotton and other renewable resources instead of petroleum products. For single usage, brown paper bags are still functional and largely eco-friendly – though not always the greatest for places with lots of rain. Still, the alternatives to plastic bags are there – and were what we used long before plastic carrier bags came on the scene.
In real life things aren’t that simple. The plastics industry, which has a huge vested interest in those hundred billion plastic bags, has mounted a spirited, but ultimately flawed, defence, channelling cash into lobbying and legal challenges. They’ve even suggested that reusable bags have different, but equally damaging, environmental effects and harbor bacteria.
The UN Environment Programme disagrees, arguing that there is no justification for continuing to use plastic bags. A compromise adopted in some countries is to replace the ultrathin plastic bags designed for one time use with stronger bags that can be used repeatedly. The issue of under-recycling remains, with the added problem that these bags are even less biodegradable than the thin kind. Even if jute and similar bags did harbor bacteria, and need regular replacing, they are easily recycled. You can even home compost them.
Many countries have brought in firm controls regulating plastic bag proliferation. As well as bans, charges for bags have proven effective. A small fee for bags in Ireland reduced consumption by ninety percent in the first three months after the legislation was introduced.
Plastic garbage bags are one thing, and perhaps a necessary evil. Plastic shopping bags are redundant, dangerous and an environmental threat that is easily dealt with. It’s up to all of us to change our habits in the interests of a green, clean planet.