Why the use of Plastic Bags should be banned
Plastic bags are one of the myriad services in which plastic material is fashioned. They are used every day, but what happens after they are discarded?
According to The World Counts, approximately 5 trillion plastic bags are consumed annually, amounting to 160,000 bags per second! So much so that each man, woman, or child on the planet uses around 700 bags every year. Out of these, 30 to 50 million single-use bags find their way into natural environments such as beaches, roads, and parks; whereas 200,000 of them end up in landfills every hour.
Virtually all of these plastic bags are single-use, serving us only once in their lifespan. Aside from being unsightly, these plastic waste items are even more detrimental to our health and ecosystem. Governments across the globe have adopted various strategies to reduce or eliminate plastic bag usage, implementing policies such as bans, increased taxes on usage, or encouraging citizens to cut down on consumption through environmental awareness campaigns.
Due to the damages and high costs, according to the United Nations, 77 countries worldwide have taken the initiative to either ban or charge for plastic bag usage.
Damages caused by plastic bag usage:
- Environmental pollution: soil, water, and air;
- They never decompose;
- Millions of animals perish every year;
- They are hazardous to human health;
- They are produced from finite resources and contribute to climate change;
- Collecting plastic bag waste is costly;
- They are difficult to recycle.
#1 ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION: SOIL, WATER, AND AIREntangled in trees and fences, drifting on water, strewn across the ground in parks, forests, in garbage bins, or even on coastal shores, we witness plastic bag waste everywhere. Because they are easily carried by the wind, they spread readily and can end up obstructing drainage systems during storms.
When it rains, streets become inundated with refuse within minutes as the water cannot pass through clogged drains. This leads to a situation where the likelihood of the litter becoming a breeding ground for disease-causing microbes and bacteria is high.
Such occurrences have already been observed in recent floods in Kosovar cities like Peja, Mitrovica, Skenderaj, and Podujeva, where blocked water channels were caused by accumulated waste carried by water currents. Similar cases are arising in places like Bangladesh, where plastic bags obstruct drainage canals, causing urban flooding.
Furthermore, the extraction and refinement of fossil fuels for plastic production emit even more toxic substances that affect our nearby communities, causing harm to rural and natural areas and transforming them into industrial zones where forests and agricultural lands are converted into roads, landfills, pipelines, and other infrastructure.
#2 THEY NEVER DECOMPOSEPlastic, as a material, outlives a human by far. Plastic bags, composed of highly durable synthetic polymers, are believed to take over 1000 years to degrade or may never fully break down in natural environments. They do not decompose in the soil but rather undergo photo-degradation. What happens is that plastic bags, exposed to environmental factors like friction and sunlight, fragment into smaller particles - microplastics - which are invisible to the naked eye. Microplastics accumulate in soil (where we cultivate food), in water bodies (from which we obtain drinking water), and disperse into the air. These particles are so minuscule that they are imperceptible to us, yet even though we cannot see them, these persistent particles have already contaminated everything from our food chain to our bodily organs. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre now contains six times more microplastic particles than plankton.
#3 MILLIONS OF ANIMALS PERISH EVERY YEARApart from infiltrating our environment, plastic bags are infiltrating animal habitats, disrupting their ecosystems. Approximately 1 million sea creatures such as seabirds and 100,000 marine animals and aquatic reptiles die annually due to plastic ingestion, as reported by the IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science. Many organisms in the food chain, from birds to land animals like earthworms, and even marine creatures, mistake plastic for food and ingest it. Specifically, plastic bags resembling jellyfish are a synthetic material most commonly found in the stomachs of sea turtles, while it has been noted that fish along western coastlines consume around 12,000 tons of plastic each year.
Two decades ago, a deceased pelican was found to have ingested 17 plastic bags in its stomach. Plastic bags obstruct the digestive system of these animals, hindering digestion. These creatures die from asphyxiation or starvation, believing they are full.
This plastic waste, beyond being ingested, also poses a threat to baby sea turtles. Baby turtles become entangled in plastic bags and can't swim, move, or feed properly, ultimately leading to their demise, as shown in a National Geographic Video. The same fate befalls other animals like dolphins, whales, seals, cats, dogs, and many others.
In 2008, a crocodile in Australia was found dead because 25 plastic bags had filled its stomach. The most serious fact is that these animals are not aware at all that ingesting this material can lead them to death and health problems such as infections, painful blockages of the intestines, and even starvation and death.
There are many cases of birds that have been trapped in plastic bags and have not been able to fly, move, or feed, eventually suffocating. The same fate has befallen other animals such as dolphins, whales, seals, cats, dogs, and many others.
All of this translates into catastrophic consequences because even if these animals have consumed plastic and have died due to their inability to digest it, when their bodies decompose, this plastic persists and continues to be consumed by other animals, thus restarting the toxic cycle from the beginning.
Even ocean corals have suffered a similar fate. Besides being vital to our survival, corals also serve as barriers against hurricanes and tsunamis and provide compounds that are being used in medicine to treat diseases like cancer. They serve as crucial structures that provide shelter for animals and protect coastlines from turbulent waters, but plastic is killing them. Plastic bags, entangled in their delicate branches, obstruct light from reaching the corals and release toxins that enable pathogens to invade, causing diseases.
A study conducted in 2018 on Pacific coral reefs confirmed that plastic pollution is gradually causing diseases, annihilating centuries-old colonies of these corals and accelerating the destruction of Earth's most biodiverse ecosystems.
#4 THEY ARE HAZARDOUS TO HUMAN HEALTHWe are already consuming plastic every day. It has been discovered even in our excretions, and the majority of what we eat and drink throughout the day contains microplastics.
Plastic bags contain pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls that disrupt our endocrine system. Phthalates, the chemicals that give plastic their desirable qualities like flexibility and softness, are endocrine disruptors linked to a range of health problems, from fertility issues to neonatal effects like allergies and asthma in infants. Additionally, they also contain inorganic additives for coloration. These colorants carry toxins and trace heavy metals such as lead or cadmium, both responsible for kidney damage and the impaired function of other organs.
Microplastics have been found in well-known carbonated drinks, tap water, and even seafood. These tiny particles, besides entering our diet through plastic-wrapped products, also result from consuming meat, as animals ingest plastic, which then spreads to our organs.
A team of researchers from MedVienna found that we are already consuming nearly five grams of microplastics per week. This is equivalent to the weight of a credit card and should not be surprising, given the facts we have seen so far.
#5 THEY ARE PRODUCED FROM FINITE RESOURCES AND CONTRIBUTE TO CLIMATE CHANGEWe have often heard the term "energy-saving." Every time we accept a plastic bag, we contribute to the wastage of energy.
First and foremost, to produce these single-use bags, plastic resin must be manufactured. This resin production relies on our fossil fuel resources like natural gas and oil, where this production consumes around 12 million barrels of oil annually. The energy required to power a car for a kilometer is equivalent to the energy used to produce 8.7 plastic bags. Globally, 8-10% of oil supply is allocated for the production of these plastic bags, which, statistically speaking, we use for only 12 minutes per person before disposing of them.
The most ironic aspect is the use of our finite Earth resources in such a destructive manner to create a product used for merely 12 minutes! The consumption of finite resources for such purposes is highly irrational when considering the product's lifespan, usage speed, and reserves. It is already known that at this rate, natural oil reserves will last only until 2052, natural gas until 2060, and coal until 2090.
Because these bags are produced from our precious fossil resources, they contribute significantly to global warming. The fossil fuels that produce these greenhouse gases affect our air quality, subsequently accelerating the climate crisis.
Even so-called "biodegradable and environmentally friendly" bags are not a solution. These bags take six months to break down in specialized facilities, but even though this might sound advantageous, the process used to decompose these bags releases carbon that transforms into methane gas, one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Additionally, these bags are photodegradable, breaking down under sunlight and heat, forming hundreds of microplastic particles.
#6 COLLECTING PLASTIC BAG WASTE IS COSTLYWhat happens to bags that end up in landfills, on the ground, or on beaches?
Cleaning them up is expensive. One plastic bag costs about 5 cents, but at the scale of daily bag usage, this translates to a substantial sum. According to 1 Bag At A Time, cleaning up bag waste costs around 17 cents per bag, and taxpayers are the ones investing money into it, as bag cleaning costs approximately 88 dollars per person annually in the US.
What seems inexpensive is not inexpensive at all.
#7 THEY ARE DIFFICULT TO RECYCLE
The recycling value of plastic bags is less than 1% globally. The damages incurred during the recycling process have caused them to be rejected by recycling plants, leading to them being discarded and reintroduced into the environment. Many of these facilities lack the potential and capacity to recycle plastic bags due to their high-density polyethylene composition. Specialized equipment is required to shred and melt these plastics into a new product.
In existing machine systems, the processing of plastic bags often results in machinery blockages and complications that are repaired only through work stoppages and require a considerable amount of time to restore equipment to its previous state. For these bags to be recycled, they also need to be clean. Given that plastic bags are mainly used in households to gather unclassified waste, at this point, their separation and cleaning from other pollutants become impossible.
There are approximately 50 different types of plastic polymers, which complicates their processing and sorting compared to recyclable items. The same recycled plastic bag can only be recycled 2-3 times before losing its quality due to polymer degradation, which leads to a loss of strength and flexibility.
Overall, by recycling the plastic bags, we are giving them a second or a third chance of life. As the process of recycling may save a low percentage of natural resources and pollution, still the remains of the bags recycled or not, will continue to cause above mentioned damages to our health, environment and the biodiversity.