Plastic bags may be cheap and easy to use, but they're unhealthy for the planet. This article explains some of the problems that plastic bags cause and what can be done to offset their damage.
Plastic bags are not renewable, which means they cannot be easily recycled like paper bags. They are made of petrochemicals, which is what makes them non-renewable and a risk to the health of the planet. They last for hundreds of years, all the while doing damage to natural habitats and killing animals that mistake them for food. The more plastic bags people use, the greater the chances of environmental damage.
If not carefully disposed of, plastic bags can be devastating to animal life. DEFRA (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) reported that 1,678,900 tons of plastic packaging was in the UK waste stream in 2001. Because plastic bags do not decay quickly, they stay in environments longer, causing more build-up on the natural landscape than a more degradable material like paper would. The Marrickville Council reports that over 100,000 whales, turtles and birds die every year as a result of plastic in their environment.
Infants and young children have died as a result of playing with plastic bags. Every year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission receives about 25 reports of plastic bag-related infant death. Because of the thin, airtight material, infants can easily block their mouths and nostrils with the plastic bag and suffocate.
Abstaining from plastic bag use as much as possible will reduce the chances of accidental infant death, and it will reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment. A plastic bag is also reusable, though. It does not necessarily have to be thrown away after a single use. Try to use each plastic bag for as long as possible. This will help reduce the number of plastic bags in circulation.
The three types of plastic bags that cause the most damage are dry cleaner bags, garbage bags, and grocery bags.
Some experts want to ban the use of plastic bags entirely. Los Angeles has passed recommendations that will make them illegal in supermarkets by 2012. The British government sees plastic bags as a symbol for a throwaway society. They claim, "[Plastic bags] are a significant cause of litter.... Most of the rest of the 13 billion bags used each year end up in landfills."
Alternatives to Plastic Bags
Canvas bags are a smart alternative to plastic. Canvas can be washed and reused, and lasts up to 10 years on average. Bringing a few canvas bags with you to the store will greatly reduce the number of plastic bags in the environment. Paper bags are not as beneficial for the environment as canvas bags, but they are recyclable. Infants cannot suffocate on paper bags either. If you're creative, you can make an old plastic bag into an arts-and-crafts project (see Resources).
Ron Augustine is a rookie freelance writer and producer who has worked primarily in radio and print media for Chicago Public Radio's Sound Opinions, Relevant Magazine, WMBI Chicago and the Burnside Writers Collective. He graduated Moody College in 2007 with a degree in Communications.