Plastic Bags, Their Danger and Alternatives

Introduction

This paper is a response to one of the most critical issues connected with the preservation of nature. It urges to stop the utilization of shopping plastic bags and to resort to their alternatives.

Today, most countries all over the world reveal their concern regarding environmental pollution. They mainly focus on air, water, and soil contamination. The first signs of the existence of this issue were already observed in the previous century. However, the attention paid to it increased recently, as the situation worsened. Among the causes that lead to environmental pollution is the use of shopping plastic bags that is maintained daily. Some governments realized the necessity to develop policies that can reduce the use of such bags (Ritch et al. 170). In some states of the USA, for example, such initiatives are already implemented at the checkout of retail and grocery stores. In this way, the representatives of the general public are charged up to $10 when using plastic bags. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of the effectiveness of this strategy in the framework of the reduction of the use of materials that are harmful to the environment (Clapp and Swanston 318). Nevertheless, the adverse impact of plastic bags on the environment is critical and should be addressed globally (Clapp and Swanston 318, 320). Thus, all the states need to realize the necessity to avoid the utilization of plastic bags and implement effective policies and initiatives to do so.

Therefore, although plastic bags are convenient to use and are even preferable for fast food packing, their use at the checkout of retail and grocery stores should be prohibited, because they affect the environment and people’s health adversely, are difficult and costly to recycle, and can be easily replaced with their alternatives.

General Background

The representatives of the general public have got used to the availability of shopping plastic bags at the checkout of retail and grocery stores, so they become dissatisfied when being deprived of this option. However, the number of people who realize that these items have a negative influence on the environment increases. People reveal their concerns regarding the effects of plastic bags on forests, lakes, rivers, and oceans. Professionals underline that plastic bags affect the survival of flora and fauna, as plastic waste exudes toxins that harm aquatic life (O’Brine and Thompson 2279). Still, the issue does not stop here, as the toxins affect other organisms and products, also posing adverse health implications on people in the end. Ocean economy in the USA comprises about $40 billion, and all these funds are at risk because of plastic bags and harm they do (Clapp and Swanston 320). What is more, to minimize the negative effect of plastic bags, cleanup and recycling are to be maintained. However, these initiatives tend to be rather costly. Even though the USA makes attempts to resort to this approach, it is apparent that it will be more advantageous for the country to simply avoid the use of plastic shopping bags. In other words, legislation that promotes the permanent ban on the use of plastic bags when shopping in retail and grocery outlets is required. As a result of such legislation, improvements in the environmental framework are likely to be observed, along with the financial advantages for citizens, for there will be no necessity to pay taxes for the cleanup and recycling of plastic waste. With the help of a collaborative approach, the state of the environment will be improved, so both businesses and the representatives of the general public need to be aware of the harmful outcomes of using plastic bags when shopping.

Plastic Bags and their Influence on the Environment

Plastic bags that are used by shoppers have a profound adverse impact on the environment. Today, many representatives of the general public support governments regarding their views on plastic bags, as they are aware of multiple issues posed by these items. However, initially, this problem emerged due to the innovation developed by the U.S. oil and gas industry. In the 1970s already, manufacturers had to deal with the issue that remains on the front burner even today. There was a necessity to shift people’s attitudes toward paper and plastic bags. However, while the advantages of the plastic bags were emphasized in the 20th century, their drawbacks are highlighted now. It is stated that the production of plastic has risen from approximately 0.5 million tons in 1950 to nearly 260 million tons in 2007 and that disposable plastic packaging comprises about 37% of this total production, meaning that almost 100 million tons of plastic bags and packaging were created only in 2007 (O’Brine and Thompson 2279). The representatives of the plastic production industry claim that there is no reason to be afraid of these numbers because it is possible to recycle them. However, only a small percentage of this amount is successfully gathered and sent for recycling, while most of it goes to landfills or is released into the environment (O’Brine and Thompson 2279-2280).

Needless to say, the plastic bags which are released into the environment have a profound negative impact on the latter (Rujnic-Sokele et al. 42-44). The plastic accumulates in the landfill and natural habitats of various species; in particular, the marine environment is polluted especially heavily (O’Brine and Thompson 2279). The waste results in danger for the representatives of marine wildlife; they may become entangled in the plastic debris or erroneously ingest plastic and die as a result (O’Brine and Thompson 2279). The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the majority of types of plastic usually break down extremely slowly; studies of its degradation in the soil indicate that it may take more than a century for polyethylene to be mineralized (O’Brine and Thompson 2279). In fact, according to a different estimate, some types of plastic may even take up to a millennium to degrade completely (Clapp and Swanston 318). Also, the process of degradation of waste presents a hazard by creating the possibility of chemical pollution (O’Brine and Thompson 2279).

It should also be stressed that the production of disposable plastic bags leads to excessive utilization of non-renewable natural resources such as oil. As has already been estimated above, more than 100 million tons of plastic bags and packaging were created in 2007 only, which permits for concluding that even a greater amount of oil was utilized for this production; besides, a large number of other types of resources, such as various chemicals, as well as energy, are employed to create plastic bags. Therefore, it is pointed out that plastic bags have enormous production costs (Ritch et al. 168). Thus, it seems an incredible waste to use the above-mentioned resources only to produce disposable plastic bags, which are probably going to be thrown away after a period of use which, in most cases, ranges from several minutes to several days.

Apart from their most harmful impact on the natural environment, disposable plastic bags also have numerous adverse effects on the environment in which humans live (Khoo 284-285). It is paramount to stress that because plastic shopping bags are very often provided for the customers free of charge, the latter do not value these bags and get rid of them quickly. As a result, plastic bags often end up littering the streets of cities and other human settlements; the litter may also gather in areas outside the settlements (He 408). Therefore, countries that have issues with waste management are forced to deal with health risks posed the gathering amounts of plastic waste, apart from the above-mentioned environmental degradation (Thanh et al. 23). For example, it is emphasized that the accumulation of plastic bags in the drainage systems may result in clogging, which requires additional expenses to be addressed, and might lead to the increased number of cases of water-borne diseases affecting humans (Synthia and Kabir 184). Also, it is highlighted that the plastic bags littering the streets create an adverse image of a country, which has a negative influence on that country’s tourism (Clapp and Swanston 320).

Therefore, it is possible to summarize that the use of disposable plastic bags leads to profoundly adverse consequences for the natural environment (including the pollution and the excessive use of natural resources), as well as for the human community (resulting in harm to its cultural aspects such as tourism, as well as in potential hazards for the health of the population). This supports the statement that the use of disposable plastic bags should be prohibited or at least strictly limited; it is no wonder that Zen et al. claim that the reduction of plastic bag use can save the environment (1260).

Difficulties in Recycling Plastic Bags

As has been noted above, the representatives of the plastic bags production industry claim that the problem of environmental pollution due to plastic bags waste should not be feared because it is possible to recycle this waste. However, in practice, it turns out that recycling plastic packaging is not only costly but is also associated with some difficulties. In particular, according to da Cruz et al., the management of waste is a rather complex issue, for it requires that a large number of stakeholders (such as manufacturers, retailers, buyers/consumers, national and local governments, and so on) all take part in it (299-300). To consider a possible scenario, it may be needed that the local or national government produces legislation aimed at increasing the rates of plastic bags recycling; manufacturers and retailers will have to be taxed to supply the money needed to recycle the waste (i.e., elicit them from consumers), or the citizens can directly be taxed additionally; buyers will have to only throw away plastic bags into special containers aimed at collecting such waste and provided by the local authorities; it will be needed to collect the plastic litter which did not find its way into the containers for plastic bags, and so on. Organizing a similar system is possible, but requires complex management and a large number of various resources, which is often difficult in practice. Furthermore, organizing such a system will be even more difficult in developing countries, which often lack the necessary financial and managerial resources for this (Clapp and Swanston 319).

Therefore, it is possible to conclude that, although it is theoretically possible to recycle the waste resulting from the use of plastic bags, it remains a practically non-viable solution at least in the developing countries (Clapp and Swanston 319), and that results in the currently existing situation when large amounts of plastic waste are continuously dumped into the environment, causing all the adverse consequences which were mentioned above, and more.

What Can Be Used Instead of Plastic Bags?

Due to the numerous adverse consequences which are caused by the excessive utilization of plastic bags, it is appropriate to consider what can be used instead of these. First, it should be pointed out that plastic bags are often used for two main purposes: small plastic bags are often employed as a one-time packaging for something such as food, whereas large ones are frequently utilized as reusable containers for carrying several items. Therefore, it might be possible to state that there exist two main categories of using plastic bags: the single-use category and the reusable category (Muthu et al. 208).

When it comes to the single-use category, the well-known alternative is using paper bags and packaging to wrap products. However, it is stated that on the whole, plastic bags do better than paper bags in this category (Muthu et al. 224); apart from the fact that they are waterproof and stronger than paper bags, plastic bags are lighter and thus require a lower amount of raw materials to be produced. Extensively using paper bags for this purpose can potentially cause deforestation (Silvenius et al. 289). However, it should be stressed that the materials used for the creation of paper bags are still renewable, their recycling is easier than that of plastic bags, and they also naturally degrade within a considerably lower amount of time than plastic bags. So, it might be possible to state that despite plastic bags often being a preferred choice as a single-use container, the alternative of paper bags still seems to be a viable one.

On the other hand, there exist several alternatives to reusable large plastic bags. For instance, it is possible to manufacture woven or knit bags from textile such as cotton, or some artificial material other than plastic. It should be pointed out, however, that using other artificial materials (such as nylon) does not solve the ecological problem resulting from the use of plastic bags, for these materials might be similar to plastic in their effect on the environment and their poor degradability (Synthia and Kabir 184). And yet, bags made out of such materials have been used in Dhaka, Bangladesh to replace plastic bags, which were banned; most of the population erroneously believed that the new bags were an ecologically safe alternative (Synthia and Kabir 183). (Therefore, care should be taken when creating policies against plastic bags so as not to allow the mass manufacturing of bags made of materials which are not eco-friendly.) On the whole, it should also be noted that woven bags are strong and reliable, and are stated to be the best alternative to large plastic bags; for instance, woven cotton bags can be used a considerably greater number of times, are stronger than plastic bags, and are biologically degradable (Muthu et al. 208). Thus, woven bags (e.g. from cotton) can serve as a viable alternative to plastic bags.

Policies Against the Use of Plastic Bags in the World

The need to address the issue about the excessive use and waste of plastic bags has been recognized in many countries of the world (Clapp and Swanston 323), and several governments have made attempts to forbid or limit the use of plastic bags, with varying degrees of success. For instance, it is stated that the policies aimed at limiting plastic bag use have been implemented in several African countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, but were not successful there (He 428). Synthia and Kabir also report the implementation of bans or additional taxes in several countries and regions (186). Also, it is stressed that the legislation for prohibiting plastic bags was first implemented in Bangladesh in 2002; however, the policy was not very successful because plastic bags were replaced by bags made of other artificial materials that were not ecologically friendly, even though they were believed to be such by the absolute majority of local consumers (Synthia and Kabir 184). On the other hand, campaigns against plastic bags are stated to have been rather successful in some countries such as Ireland and Denmark (He 428).

On the whole, the policies aimed at banning or limiting the use of plastic bags sometimes were unsuccessful, especially if they were not enforced appropriately. For instance, He states that when plastic bags are taxed, but shops are permitted to set prices on these bags on their own, some shops still provide them free of charge, which, results in the zero effectiveness of such a policy (408). On the contrary, however, the law that was implemented in China and that forbade shops to give plastic bags to buyers free of charge is stated to have been rather effective, reducing the amount of overall consumption of plastic bags by approximately 50% or even more, according to several surveys (He 428).

Therefore, several local and national governments have already recognized the importance of the issue of environmental pollution caused by the excessive and uncontrolled use of plastic bags by consumers, and have implemented policies aimed at taxing or even banning plastic bags (Synthia and Kabir 186). The practice shows, however, that simply introducing legislation against plastic bags is not enough, that it should be enforced appropriately, and that adequate alternatives ought to be supplied for consumers to use instead of plastic bags. Also, retailers and manufacturers should encourage buyers to act in an environmentally responsible way by creating and promoting eco-friendly bags (Ritch et al. 173). It is stated that very often consumers are persuaded to stop using plastic bags by using reasons about the preservation of the environment and by running educational and awareness campaigns (Zen et al. 1260, 1267), and it is apparent that, if coupled with adequate anti-plastic-bag policy, such policies can yield considerable positive results in lowering the amount of produced plastic bag waste.

Rebuttal of Arguments Against Plastic Bags Prohibition

Plastic bags have several considerable advantages which can be used as counterarguments to the position which advocates the prohibition of these bags. These advantages can be summarized as follows:

  1. Plastic bags are light, waterproof, strong, and cheap (He 411), which allows for easily using them for food preservation;
  2. Plastic bags can be disposed of easily, which is quite convenient for a product that needs to be mass-produced (Ritch et al. 172);
  3. It is believed that it is safer and healthier to utilize plastic bags to pack foods when compared to the available alternatives (Clapp and Swanston 320);
  4. The production of food takes much more resources and energy than the production of plastic bags, and wasting food is stated to lead to greater environmental costs than wasting plastic packaging (Silvenius et al. 290), which justifies the use of plastic bags;
  5. Plastic bags are simply very convenient for the consumer.

It seems that the strongest of these arguments in the environmental terms is #4; Silvenius et al. argue that wasting food is worse than wasting plastic packaging (290). However, it should be noted that the current paper offers to introduce a ban on plastic bags at the checkout of retail or grocery stores, not on the plastic packaging on the whole (although it is probable that the use of plastic for packaging production needs to be further investigated and optimized). Therefore, if a proposed ban on plastic bags is implemented, companies will still be able to pack food in appropriate packaging to preserve their products in good condition for an adequate period. As for consumers, it is apparent that they can easily store foods in other types of containers in the fridge, and so on. Also, educational campaigns are needed to teach the mass consumer that wasting food has a profound detrimental effect on the environment. This also answers the claims #1 and #3; consumers often can use means other than plastic bags to store food, whereas using plastic packaging in food production for more long-term preservation of products can still be allowed.

As for claim 2, it should be noted that being easily disposable is convenient, but appears to be a disadvantage when it comes to environmental concerns. Most consumers can easily employ woven cotton bags to carry food from the store, so there is simply no imminent need in the use of large plastic bags for this purpose.

Conclusion

On the whole, it should be stressed that the production of plastic bags had dramatically increased in the past years, which leads to the tremendous amounts of plastic waste; approximately 100 million tons of plastic bags and packaging were created in 2007 only. It is paramount to stress that this waste is mostly disposed of into the environment; it accumulates in the landfill and especially in marine environments. This poses a danger to the local species, the representatives of which may ingest pieces of waste or become entangled in it, which causes the death of that representative of the natural world; a large number of animals, fish, and birds are killed in this way annually. The degradation of polyethylene creates a hazard of chemical pollution; also, it may take hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years to degrade, creating long-term pollution of the environment. Plastic bags also litter the streets of human settlements, harming the country’s economy by creating an adverse image of it and decreasing the prevalence of tourism.

While it is possible to recycle plastic bags, it is very difficult in practice because it is not only costly but also complex, requiring an organized collaboration of a large number of stakeholders such as the local and national governments, food and packaging production businesses, retail shops and stores, consumers, and so on. Therefore, recycling plastic bags is problematic, and is especially difficult for developing countries, which leads to the situation when most of it is simply disposed of into the environment.

Luckily, in most cases, it is possible to replace plastic bags with other types of packaging; in particular, woven cotton bags are stated to demonstrate the top performance when it comes to carrying the amounts of items which weigh much, and to the overall durability of the bag.

It is no wonder, therefore, that some governments have already implemented policies aimed at prohibiting or limiting the use of plastic bags. However, their success varies, which means that the policy banning plastic bags should be thoroughly thought over and consistently enforced to be effective. And, although there are some reasons for using plastic bags, alternatives can be proposed and easily implemented in most cases.

Therefore, it is important to introduce a ban on selling plastic bags at the checkout of retail and grocery stores to reduce the amount of plastic waste dumped into the natural environment, for ignoring this issue can lead to considerable detrimental effects for the environment, and, in the end, for the whole humanity.

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