Would you believe that the United States consumes 100 billion plastic bags every year? It sounds unbelievable, but according to the Wall Street Journal this very well might be the case. In fact, some sources believe that the simple plastic bag we so often take for granted ranks as the most widely produced consumer product on the planet.
To manufacture enough plastic bags for the United States alone requires 12 million barrels of oil, producing unbelievable amounts of waste. Cleangreenbags.com states that, as of 1998, 89% of the floating waste observed in the North Pacific Ocean was composed of disposable plastics.
Even more terrifying than it’s tremendous numbers is the plastic bag’s durability. Since no organism feeds on plastic, there is no avenue for its decomposition. A plastic bag can sit in a landfill, or even the oceans bottom, for centuries, perhaps breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, but never disappearing entirely. There is no debate: plastic shopping bags are bad for the environment. The question is what can we do about it?
While the damage produced by plastic bags is devastating, is the solution to outright ban plastic bags? Some cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, have said yes, placing a plastic bag ban on larger grocery stores. An article on Salon.com outlines the chosen solution in Ireland: a plastic bag tax. By placing a 22-cent tax on every plastic bag the consumer must make the deliberate choice to use the bags. The tax has driven down use by 90%. Some countries have gone all the way with a plastic bag ban, including Bangladesh, which has been plastic bag free since 2002.
What about recycling plastic bags? Unfortunately for plastic bags, it seems that current municipal recycling programs are simply not up to the task. Because a recycling symbol is often prominently displayed on the bag, many users throw plastic grocery bags in with their normal recyclables. This often has the opposite of the intended effect. Since most city recycling programs do not have the facilities to recycle plastic bags they are forced to ship them to the dump, adding another layer of travel and sorting to an already taxed system. Instead, take your plastic bags back to the grocery store. Several large chains, including Wal-Mart, have their own recycling programs in place for the standard polyethylene shopping bag.
However, the best option to help the environment and combat the constant consumption of plastic bags is to ban plastic bags for yourself. Rather than waiting for legislation, take the small steps now to cut them out of your routine. The best option is to carry your own reusable tote bag. Just keep a few in your car at all times, making it a cinch to pick up groceries as you normally would. Another option is to request paper bags, which, while still wasteful, can be recycled or naturally decomposed.
New alternatives, such as bags made from biodegradable corn fibers, are emerging all over the country. The facts are in: plastic bags are bad for the environment. Ban plastic bags in your own life and you will be making a tremendous difference for our world.