Plastic bags rose to popularity in the same way so many other plastic products became popular. Their relative strength, versatility, and low cost to manufacture made them a quick and easy alternative to traditional paper bags. The problem is that while plastic bags offer many conveniences, they also drive tremendous environmental impacts.
Manufacturing of plastic bags is done using petroleum and natural gas resources. The average American family collects roughly 1,500 bags per year. This means the energy required to make the bags could fuel a car to drive 125 miles. Now multiply that across every family in the country!
As a nation, we use over 100 billion (yes billion) disposable plastic bags per year. And the number keeps growing. Nations such as China report using nearly 1 trillion plastic bags per year.
Consistent with other plastic products, plastic bags do not go through a process of decomposition. The bags instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces when they enter the environment through a process called photo-degradation. Eventually the pieces that are not in a landfill or incinerated enter the food chain after being mistaken for food by fish or other wildlife. Check here to see what similarly happens with plastic bottles.
Plastic bags can take between 20 years and 500 years to completely photodegrade depending on the materials used in manufacturing.
The materials used in the manufacturing of plastic bags cause them to absorb other toxins and create highly concentrated poisons when they break down as litter.
Animal life killed through the ingestion of toxic plastic bag particles eventually decompose; however, the toxins are released back into the environment.
Laid end-to-end, all plastic bags consumed in the United States in one year would leave a trail over 32 million miles long. That’s enough plastic bags for over 65 round-trip visits to the moon!
Are There Biodegradable Plastic Bags
An increased effort has been made recently to design bags using plant-based ingredients or polymers derived from lactic acid. These products do in fact biodegrade when introduced to a composter. There are a few considerations to keep in mind while these bags are starting to emerge:
Biodegradable plastic bags decompose only when exposed to the elements which means they will not degrade in a landfill.
Many recycling centers are not yet equipped to support recycling these bags. This means they need to be sorted separately from traditional plastic bags.
What Can Be Done
Plastic bag bans are certainly one option. The challenge is that this addresses a symptom and not the root cause.
Use reusable bags – sure they require more material to manufacture; however, they’ve been shown to last for years which far outweighs the initial resource investment.
Reduce. Find ways to decrease your demand for plastic bags. For example, do you really need a bag for that single item you purchased?
Reuse. Give those bags a second life. You can take them back to the store to be used again or you can repurpose those bags for something in your home.
Recycle. Find a plastic bag recycling center near you. Check here for locations near you.
We can all do our part to reduce the environmental impact from plastic bags. Take your first steps today.