Since the invention of plastic in 1862, we have found new uses for it, some of them very detrimental to the environment. The plastic that we use nowadays is a petroleum-based material and therefore not biodegradeable. Plastic bags are the second most common form of litter after cigarette butts, and the most pervasive ocean litter (Source: Environmental Leaders). Much of this debris also makes it way to the ocean and chokes many of marine life. Animals like the sea turtle mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and try to eat it. The environmental impact of plastic bag has become such a large problem that Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, wants to ban plastic bags altogether (Source: Environmental Leaders). Companies like Apple have initiated a “no plastic bag” rule in March of 2009 for retail outlets in malls. Customers can receive assistance to a car or the leave their items at the store while they continue shopping. (Source: Apple Insider).
Still, rather than an all-out ban, other organizations and people have developed other ways of fixing the plastic bag program. The Progressive Bag Affiliates started the Full Circle Recycling Initiative. This initiative aims for 40 percent recycled content in all plastic bags by 2015, and at least 25 percent postconsumer recycled plastic (Source: American Chemistry). With more recycled materials, the creation of plastic bags will have less of an environmental impact and lower greenhouse gas emissions by 463 million pounds, conserve enough energy to heat 200,000 homes, and reduce waste by 300 million pounds every year (Source: American Chemistry Press Release). There is even new evidence that shows that production, use and disposal of plastic bags put less burden on natural resources than paper bags. Many cities have also allowed plastic bags in curbside recycling programs to decrease the environmental burden these bags create (Source: Wall Street Journal).
There has even been creation of a biodegradeable plastic made out of chicken feathers. Dr. Justin Barone of the Agricultural Research Service, along with Walter Schmidt, have developed a process that uses only heat, pressure and water to dissolve the sulphur-sulphur bonds in the keratin of the feathers. This process can be used to create any petroleum-based plastics and production is much cheaper and easier than traditional petroleum-based plastic. Feathers are also very plentiful as the poultry production process creates 4 billion pounds of feathers every year. Not only does the feather plastic reduce waste, but the plastic made from feathers are also biodegradeable (Source: Pieces Zine).
We’ve definitely come a long way in terms of the production of plastic bags, but to really save the environment, we need to start using our own reuseable bags. Still the question of “paper or plastic” has become a more complicated question at the grocery store.