Oh the plastic bag!! It is one of those everyday objects that we don’t even pay attention; they are literally everywhere because as you know these bags are extremely convenient and cheap, “the perfect combination to suit our busy lifestyle” people might say. However, its excessive use has gained a lot of attention in the last few years due to all the damage that is causing to the environment.
This is the first post of the Plastic Bag Series and it is about why we should all care about the amount of plastic bags we use and what’s the problem with plastic bags.
There are many issues linked to plastic bags and I’d like to highlight and summarise some of them:
For years we have been using plastic bags every single day, they are super practical and it is really an everyday object; therefore they have become a single-use item. We use them to carry stuff for minutes and then they are thrown away or kept to line garbage bins which also end up in landfill generating massive amount of waste. Majority of people see no value whatsoever in a plastic bag therefore they don’t think twice before send it to the first bin available or leave them behind, this is specially true in public events when I often see so much waste. I took the photo below in the Grand Prix – Formula 1 here in Melbourne a couple of years ago:
One of the main problems with plastic bags is that they are so light-weighted, even if you put them in a bin they can easily blow away and not only litter but block drains and waterways contributing to massive issues like flooding in the cities.
This video from VolunteerCleanup.org shows how they can easily clog the drains:
Organic materials such as paper, wood, and food will decompose quickly in the soil, however standard polyethylene bags don’t biodegrade and no one has an exact number of years they will last – some say more than 100 years.
Some people use biodegradable bags to reduce the impact but the reality is these bags need a proper environment (oxygen, light, right temperature etc.) to degrade and these conditions may not exist if they are buried in landfill. They just break up into tiny pieces and linger polluting the planet for years to come.
Many plastic bags end up entering the oceans where they are mistaken for food and they are eaten causing starvation, not only in marine species but sea birds. Marine mammals like whales are particularly susceptible to the plastic bag issue, they eat it thinking they are jelly fish.
Some animals also get entangled in plastic bags and this encounter is many times fatal. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity report (2012):
“Fatal entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris by marine animals has increased by 40% in the last decade”
Plastic bags are made of oil and other non-renewable resources that are quickly wasted given that these bags are only used once or twice and then they end up in landfill. Some plastic bags are recycled, but the percentage is really small. Unarguably this is a waste of resources.
Nowadays scientists are finding tiny pieces of plastic in the fish/seafood we eat. This is not exclusively caused by bags, but plastic in general.
In a documentary I watched the other day called Oceans of Plastic a marine scientist said:
“It’s not worth throwing away plastic bags. You should just season them well and eat them directly because they’re going to end up back on your plate in one way or another.”
I think this video summarises with a bit a humour many of these issues and it shows how these plastic bags escape and end up in the ocean causing so much devastation.
Well recycling the bags is way better than sending them to landfill however it doesn’t seem to be the perfect solution to this problem:
- In most places plastic bags are not included in the kerbside collection so people have to actually know and care enough to keep the plastic bags and take it to a collection point.
- Plastic bags most of the time are not recycled into new plastic bags but other products. Let’s say 100% of plastic bags were actually recycled, then to the rate they are used there has to be a huge market for these recycled products. Is that the case? well I can’t answer that, but it doesn’t look like producing a big amount of recycled plastic products is the final solution because probably just a percentage of those products can and will be recycled again.
- Recycling needs extra energy and resources.
- There are materials as aluminium that can be recycled infinite times, but plastic is not one of them.
So reducing the amount of plastic bags we use on regular basis is the best we can do for the environment instead of relying on recycling.
Now let’s do the math
Sometimes we have certain behaviours and we think to ourselves: “It is not too bad”. Well, life is busy and we don’t tend to look at the big picture. Over time the things we consume have a cumulative effect and it is good to do our math and confront the reality, maybe it is not what we want to hear, but that doesn’t change it.
Often we see statistics like this: “Australia alone uses 6.9 billion plastic bags a year…” and yes it is a massive number but I think it is easier to visualise things when we put them in a context that’s more familiar to us.
So let’s say I go to the supermarket and I buy:
- Tomatoes, potatoes, apples, broccoli, carrots = 5 plastic produce bag
- Rice, pasta, sugar, frozen veggies and toilet paper = 5 plastic packages
Then I would need around 3 plastic bags to carry my groceries to the car. That gives a total of 13 plastic bags.
Imagine this is the usual amount of items I get in the supermarket every week.
13 plastic bags per week x 52 weeks = 676 plastic bags in a year and 3.380 in five years.
So I would be responsible for sending to the landfill 676 plastic bags every single year, which is not a small number especially when you think about all the problems that they are causing to the planet and other species. And for this exercise, the numbers are quite low and it would be only for a small family. I would say many people use way more plastic bags every week.
Let’s say hypothetically you to go to your mother’s house often and you leave there a couple of objects you are no longer using thinking she might need them. After a couple of months you realise her house is a mess and she can’t handle/organise/donate all the items you have been bringing and she’s tired. Probably you feel terrible because you have been causing all this without being aware. So you apologise, stop bringing stuff, remove the unwanted objects and help her deal with the problem.
To me this scenario described above, although not very realistic is not different to the current situation and all the environmental issues the planet is facing. We tend to think about our home as our house, that little space that we keep clean, safe and pretty, but the streets outside, the oceans, the mountains all those places are our home too, where we live and we belong: our planet. So let’s be accountable and do something about this problem.
Next part of this plastic bag series we’ll discuss what we can do to stop the plastic bag madness, the type of bags and things to consider when making the switch. For now I invite you to make this simple exercise, for 1 week, collect all the plastic bags you use including packaging and count them, it is a great opportunity to gain awareness of your plastic bag usage. Keep that number as a reference and then calculate what amount you would use in a year, what is your final number? Were you really aware of the amount of bags you are using? Please leave your comment below and tell me your experience, we are all here to learn and improve.
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Thanks for reading,