Plastic Bags: a global environmental threat
We live in a disposable world. More and more of the things that we use to make life convenient are designed to be used only once. These things include batteries, plastic pens, food and shipping containers, disposable cameras, razors, combs, and the list goes on. No item is more ubiquitous and more controversial than the plastic shopping bag.
Cities, states, and nations around the world are taking steps to reduce the use of plastic bags or to eliminate them entirely.
(Source: Earth Policy Institute: www.earth-policy.org)
The number of governments taking action is impressive, and the geographical scale of these efforts mirrors the size of the problem.
Single-use plastic bags are nearly ubiquitous in global shopping centers. Everything from groceries to electronic are loaded into the bags by vendors. They do make carrying items out of stores much more convenient, but most people use individual bags for an average of only 12 minutes. After that they are discarded, sometimes in trash and recycling bins but other times in the environment. In New York City, shoppers use 5.2 billion single-use bags per year, and a majority of the 91,000 tons of discarded plastic bags enter landfills where they will take more than a century to break down. Even though the bags break down, they do not biodegrade. Over time they will break apart into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that will remain in the soil.
In Mumbai, discarded plastic bags clog rainwater drainage systems and have caused floods that left thousands of people dead. The Supreme Court of India called plastic bags a more serious threat to future generations than nuclear weapons.
Even if you disagree, it’s impossible to deny that the bags are a nuisance. Trees catch the bags in their branches leaving a synthetic eyesore out of reach of the environmentally conscious.
The Maharasthra state government banned plastic bags less than 50 microns thick from being used in Mumbai altogether. Delhi recently extended its ban of bags less than 40 microns thick to include plastic items used for shipping, like the wrappers on magazines and greeting cards.
Another strategy for reducing the use of plastic bags is to levy a tax on each bag sold. The New York City Council is considering adding a tax of 10 cents per plastic bag used by consumers at all retail stores.
The state of California combined a ban and a tax in order to encourage shoppers to reuse bags. All shopping bags in California must be “reusable”, and the law requires stores to charge at least 10 cents per bag. The law clarifies that reusable bags must be at least 2.25 millimeters thick, be designed for at least 125 uses, and be washable.
Plastic bag manufacturers and their lobbyists are pushing back against these bans. They collected the more than 500,000 signatures necessary to activate a California state law that allows controversial legislation to be added to election ballots. Voters will choose in 2016 whether or not the bag ban will stay in place.
With all this fuss over banning and taxing plastic bags, do these measures even work?
Scientific American reported on studies conducted after anti-bag policies went into effect in Ireland and in San Jose, California. They show that the policies resulted in a significant reduction in both plastic bag litter as well as plastic bags discarded in waste collection systems.
That doesn’t mean that all of the policies are effective. In Chicago, lawmakers banned single-use plastic bags but didn’t take any measures to encourage consumers to reuse them. Instead, stores continue to give out free plastic bags, but now the bags are made of thicker plastic. This hasty and ill-conceived policy was pushed through the Chicago city council even though anti-bag activists and the bag industry both lobbied against it.
There’s no doubt that single-use plastic bags are a threat to the environment, and but banning the bags must be one part of a broader push to change global consumer culture. The bags are one example in a world that increasingly values and consumes all things disposable, and disposability is another word for wasteful and environmentally irresponsible.
The world hasn’t been this way for very long, and it does not have to stay this way either.