Handy and widely available, plastic bags are used every day. However, the damage they cause to the environment, biodiversity and human health far outweighs their benefits. Every year, nearly 400 million tons of plastic waste is generated, and as much as half of it is single-use plastic. For this reason, July is marked as a plastic-free month around the world, and July 3 has been observed as the International Plastic Bag Free Day since 2010, so as to encourage as many people as possible to stop using disposable plastic products.
The industrial Revolution brought many discoveries, including new materials. Polyethylene, the main component of disposable plastic, was discovered in England in 1933, paving the way for the mass production of plastic bags. The first plastic bag was patented by Swedish company Celloplast in 1965. Soon, disposable plastic bags replaced cloth and paper bags.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now home to an ecosystem
The aggressive growth of single-use plastics has led to the creation of huge amounts of waste. One particularly concerning phenomenon is an ecosystem found in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Yes, the world’s first plastic ecosystem. The 600,000 square kilometer patch with a high concentration of floating waste was discovered in 1997 between California and Hawaii.
Between November 2018 and January 2019, scientists determined that this area is inhabited by 484 species of invertebrates, including small crabs and jellyfish, which normally live in coastal areas. There are four more such patches of accumulated plastic in the world’s oceans.
Photo: The Ocean Cleanup
Single-use plastic bags are not biodegradable. It takes more than 700 years for them to begin to break down, and about a thousand years to decompose completely – a terrifying figure compared to the average human lifespan, of about 70 years.
Five trillion plastic bags are produced every year
To make matters worse, the world produces five trillion plastic bags every year, while the total amount of plastic waste generated annually is 400 million tons. Single-use plastic accounts for half of it. Most plastic products never decompose completely. Instead, they break down into ever smaller pieces, called microplastics.
Plastic bags are killing large numbers of marine animals
It is difficult to determine how many marine mammals are killed by plastic pollution, but the WWF’s estimate puts the figure at 100,000 a year.
There are two main ways that make encountering marine debris fatal for these creatures: ingestion (eating) or entanglement in abandoned fishing nets.
There will be more plastic than fish in the oceans before 2050
A plastic bag ballooned with water can look like squid or other prey to turtles, seals and other marine animals that hunt them.
Even whales and dolphins, which use echolocation to find their prey, get confused and incorrectly interpret plastic bags as food. Every year, 10 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the oceans. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans before 2050.
Photo: Blandine Joannic from Pixabay
Small steps lead to great change
Only 9% of all plastic is recycled, and, according to some reports, only 1% to 3% of plastic bags. What can each of us do on July 3, and any other day, to help eliminate plastic pollution?
The simplest way is sustainable shopping. Take your own reusable shopping bag to the store, choose products with no plastic packaging, or buy local products.
Say no to plastic straws: drink straight from a glass or ask for a paper straw at a cafe. Bring your own reusable mug or thermos. Your coffee will stay warm longer and there will be no unnecessary waste. A reusable bottle is a convenient solution for water, which you can pour from the tap to avoid buying it in plastic bottles.
Photo: Rika Cossey from Pixabay
You could buy a bamboo toothbrush with natural fibers, or use solid shampoo bars. Nature and your wallet will be grateful.
Governments and the industry also need to do their part in order to eliminate plastic pollution and remediate its consequences.
Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002
In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban thin plastic bags, after determining that they played a key role in clogging drainage systems during disastrous flooding. Other countries, such as India, followed suit by either banning or limiting the use of disposable plastic products.