Plastic bags have been dubbed the "national flower" in South Africa because so many can be seen flapping from fences and caught in bushes. Plastic bags also have become the most common man-made item seen by sailors at sea. According to Clean Up Australia, Australians use more than 6 billion plastic bags per year. If they were tied together, these bags would form a chain long enough to go around the world 37 times. The term "white pollution" has been coined in China for the tumbleweed plastic bags blowing on the streets.
These ubiquitous little buggers are wreaking havoc on the environment. Plastic bags photodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller toxic bits, contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food chain. Bits of bags often are mistaken for food by hundreds of thousands of sea turtles and marine mammals, including whales. On land, many cows, goats and other animals also die from accidentally ingesting plastic bags while foraging for food.
Eight billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps and sacks enter the waste stream every year in the U.S. alone. We have to pay people to collect, haul and dump these bags into already-crowded landfills. Many bags collected for recycling never actually are recycled. Some are shipped off to developing countries with lax environmental laws that allow them to be incinerated. Incineration creates massive amounts of air pollution and soil degradation. And facilities that can recycle plastic bags are diminishing, as it is not economically feasible to recycle these bags.
"It costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32," says Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment.
San Francisco is the first major U.S. city to ban plastic bags outright. Ireland passed a "plastax," which reduced bag consumption by 90 percent, saved more than 18 million liters of oil, and raised $9.6 million for its "green fund." South Africa's bag tax appears on printed grocery receipts to remind consumers how much money they could have saved by bringing their own bags. Taiwan expanded its bag ban to include disposable food containers. Bangladesh and India both implemented bag bans after discovering that the littered bags choked drainage ditches, which caused flooding and many casualties. The Bangladeshi ban has led coincidentally to a revival of the jute bag industry and other sustainable and biodegradable alternatives. Hong Kong has instituted a campaign in which people are encouraged not to use plastic bags, and it prohibits large retailers from providing free bags. Voluntary bag limits have reduced plastic bags by 24 percent in one year in Australia. Ninety percent of Australia's major retailers charge customers for shopping bags and offer onsite recycling bins, where shoppers can dump plastics after taking groceries to their cars.
Many people think that using paper bags instead of plastic is a better choice for the environment. Actually, it takes four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. The Society of the Plastics Industry found that it takes 594 British thermal units of energy to make a plastic bag and 2,511 Btu to make a paper bag. Also, paper bags are made primarily from virgin wood pulp, creating a global warming feedback loop. Trees, our primary defense against atmospheric carbon, are cut down and processed—producing tons of carbon emissions—to make paper bags. To add insult to injury, most groceries wrap paper bags inside plastic bags.
Each year, 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are doled out worldwide. That's more than 1 million bags per minute. And 380 billion plastic bags are used in the U.S. alone each year. Some stores are encouraging people to bring their own bags by offering incentives or charging for bags. Reusing old bags is very important—and should be done—but only delays the bags from entering the waste stream for a little while. Recycling is also important; please make it—instead of the garbage—the last stop for all your old bags. If people politely refused to accept any more shopping bags from stores, it would really make a difference. Instead, people should bring their own reusable tote bags to stores.