The Environmental Impact of Plastic Bags

plastic bags in trees

A huge number of plastic bags are used each year. A large proportion of them end up as litter. (Photo credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

“Paper or plastic?” is a common question heard at the checkout line. Though the environmental impact of paper versus plastic bags continues to be debated, perhaps the best answer is “I’ve brought my own.”

The amount of plastic bags used annually around the globe is truly astounding — researchers estimate that between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are consumed every year — that boils down to one million plastic bags consumed per minute. What happens to these plastic bags after they’re done carrying your purchases from the store to your home? While some bags may be reused around the house or for other purposes, it is estimated that only between 0.5 and 3 percent of used plastic bags make their way to a recycling program, and millions end up as litter.

Once free in the world, plastic bags cause a variety of problems. Aside from being a general eyesore, plastic bags pose a major threat to animal life. Due to their lightweight fabrication and tendency to wave in the wind, animals often mistake the bags as a potential food source. If the animals don’t choke on the plastic, they may face starvation after the bag gets caught in their digestive tract, which prevents the absorption of vital nutrients.┬áPlastic bags don’t just pose a threat to animals on land. Researchers estimate that every square mile of ocean has nearly 46,000 pieces of plastic in it. This plastic is harmful to sea mammals, fishes, seabirds, and other aquatic animals.

Plastic bags that find their way to a landfill will remain in the same condition for months to thousands of years. Rather than biodegrade as natural materials do, plastic bags photodegrade. This means that they chemically break down into smaller pieces through the absorption of sunlight over a long period of time. Of course, in a landfill situation, once buried underneath more refuse, plastic bags will not break down. However, photodegradation isn’t a particularly great result either, as the degradation of plastic leads to the release of toxic substances into soil and water resources.

Around the globe, some communities have chosen to take the plastic bag option off the table by banning their use outright or imposing a tax or fee for their use. In the United States, communities within Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington have all banned or added a fee to use plastic bags. Internationally, plastic bag bans or fees for their use have been enacted in communities within Australia, Bangladesh, Italy, Rwanda, and a number of other countries.

So, what to do in a world overrun by plastic bags? If you’re making a small purchase and can carry it, forego a bag altogether. For larger purchases, bring your own reusable bags. Reusable bags come in all shapes and sizes these days, including ones that can be folded down small enough to fit in your pocket. Or, if you are handy with needle and thread or a sewing machine, you could always make your own!

More to Explore
Are Plastic Bags Sacking the Environment?
The Environmental Impact of Plastic Bag Use
UCLA Report Urges New Global Policy Effort to Tackle Crisis of Plastic Litter in OceansThe Best Reusable Bags
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Make Your Own Grocery Bag

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