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Plastic Bags: They Just Don’t Make Sense

Plastic Bags: They Just Don’t Make Sense

I’ve been trying to start this piece for 30 minutes now and I can’t really think of a clever way to do it, so I’m just gonna go with the truth.

Simply put, plastic bags blow (pun intended).

OK, we’ve all heard it before, how bad they are for the environment, how they are a waste of fossil fuels, how they are ruining the planet. So why is this such a tough nut to crack?

Well, as we all know, some habits are just extremely hard to break. Look at smoking. There’s no question as to the negative side effects of smoking. There are government regulations in place to make it harder to smoke. And yet people still light up. Why? Because smoking is an addiction, just like plastic bags are an addiction. Sure they may not damage your lungs like smoking does, but they are convenient, free (for now), and easily accessible, so use them we do.

If you’ve already made the jump from plastic bags, then bravo. You’ve obviously recognized how bad they are and now realize how relatively easy it is to get them out of your life. But for those of you who are still on the plastic bag fence, let’s look at a few facts.

Plastic bags consumed this year:

Around the world this year, plastic bag consumption will exceed the 500 billion mark (that’s right, billion). The average number of plastic bags consumed every minute around the world is roughly 1 million a minute. To put that in perspective, since you started reading this article, over a million bags have been consumed. Of that number, only 1 percent will actually be recycled, while the rest will either end up in landfills or worse, out in nature or in the ocean.

But most plastic bags are biodegradable right, so it’s really not that bad if they end up in a landfill. While I wish that were true, I’m sorry to report it’s not quite the reality. Plastic bags are photodegradable, not biodegradable. That means that if they were to sit on the surface of a landfill, and soak up the suns rays for a couple of hundred years (some say 500 some say 1,000, but does it really matter?) they would eventually break down. But of course on the top of the landfill they will just blow away, and if they are covered up, they aren’t getting any sun so either way, they aren’t breaking down anytime soon.

As far as breaking down, I don’t mean that they become inert, I mean they become smaller microscopic particles, which then may eventually leach into our water system and enter into our personal systems. Yuck. You see, once you make a bag out of polyethylene (that’s the most common type of single use bag out there), it will never disappear, it’ll just break down into smaller bits, so basically, as a planet, we’re stuck with it.

Finally, there is the oil question. Depending on where they are manufactured, plastic bags are made from either oil or natural gas, both of which can be used to make ethylene, which is then used to make polyethylene bags. Natural gas and oil are finite natural resources and I think we can all agree that there are better uses for this stuff than making a plastic bag that most of us will use once and toss in the trash.

I could go on and on about the problems with plastic bags. I could show you pictures of turtles eating plastic bags, pictures of trees with plastic bags, and pictures of plastic bags floating in the ocean. I could tell you that Target stores alone issue 1.8 billion plastic bags a year, or that the average American family will accumulate 60 plastic bags a month just from shopping at the grocery store. But the bottom line is this. If you are smart, and you think about the facts, you’ll realize that plastic bags just make no sense and you’ll want to stop being part of the problem.

So how about it?

Up next, easy solutions to help you stop being part of the problem, and then some steps to start being part of the solution.

Live sustainably.

Dave Chameides is an environmental educator and freelance filmmaker. He writes alternative fuel articles for Edmunds.com and maintains the blogs 365 Days of Trash and Achieving Sustainability. While he is presently saving all of his trash for a year to better understand his environmental impact, his main focus is sustainability through education and believes that with knowledge all things are possible.

Read more: Blogs, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, Sustainable Dave, , , , ,

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Dave Chameides

Dave Chameides is a filmmaker and environmental educator. His website and newsletter are designed to inspire thought and dialogue on environmental solutions and revolve around the idea that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something. "Give people the facts, and they'll choose to do the right thing."

18 comments

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11:18AM PST on Feb 4, 2010

Thank you for this Caroline, I have seen that extract from the BBC about the sea turtles starving after swallowing these bags and clogging up their mouthes down to their stomachs. Several times I have seen these wonderful sea turtles when I was in Wales and once seen a turtle engulf a moon jellyfish. I see why the turtle would do the same to a discarded plastic bag drifting in the sea. These bags are MORE than photodegradable, they are almost indestuctable and LETHAL! Cheers, this needed attention. Simples.

1:41PM PST on Jan 23, 2010

interesting, thanks

12:38PM PST on Jan 17, 2010

please just carry a bag with you so simple

12:03AM PST on Jan 17, 2010

I use cloth bags from the supermarket - brilliant value but will also only ever buy q magazine if there's a decent free bag on it which can be used around the home, veg etc, and out and about if you're only gettng a few bits, the magazine can be recyled too. when I was a little girl 1970's/80's we used to use the cardboard boxes from the supermarket and carry them home full of shopping to be used and you could make cars and dolls houses out of them too.

5:38PM PST on Jan 16, 2010

Recently there have been complaints about people having to pay for them rather than having them for free. Education about plastic bags, the cost - animal and energy wise and the sheer amount of rubbish would be a real eye opener for many people.

12:05PM PST on Dec 20, 2009

Thanks for the analysis. I like articles that get beyond slogans.
"Plastic bags are photodegradable, not biodegradable. "

4:53AM PST on Dec 2, 2009

Interesting article...

10:07AM PST on Dec 29, 2008

I suggest http://www.carebagsonline.com. I've tried working with other products but these are the most long lasting and versatile produce and bulk bags I've found anywhere. They've been selling them since 1992 and are in all the organic and health stores across Canada. I ordered online and they maile d to me. They are also pretty cheap and super wellmade.
Kali

6:13AM PDT on Aug 27, 2008

What about using the plastic bags we already have to create new things (for those of us who don't have access to destroy them...) and refusing them when shopping?

2:36AM PDT on Aug 21, 2008

Carolyn, while I agree with the majority of your report of the plastic problem, there is evidence that incinerating it in a closed furnace at 800 degrees F does destroy it, so we do not have to be "stuck with it."
There is a young chemistry student in Canada who developed bacteria that eat plastic: http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/05/24/0335242.
When we smell plastic, we are inhaling its molecules and those molecules travel to our blood and brains and to some, as toxic as second hand smoke.
Kathy, many nations and states have banned plastic: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/plastic-bags-be-the-change.html
Everyone, please, do not buy food nor beverages contained in plastic. Do not wear clothing made of plastic. The warmer plastic becomes, the more numerous and faster its molecules migrate, into food, into us, through our skin, mouths and noses. Be healthy; ban plastic.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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