Plastic bags that have been carelessly discarded and get caught up on tree branches. Polyethylene bags fluttering in the wind, desecrating our beaches and piling up in cabinets under our sinks, waiting for uses that never seem to materialize, have become symbolic of our throw-away society and lack of environmental conscience. We use a lot of plastic bags, that much is for sure. Worldwide, roughly a million every minute of every day. Why? Because they are convenient and cheap to produce. And what happens to them? Some of course are reused as garbage bags, or as pooper scoopers. A few people even reuse them for grocery shopping but most end up being discarded and end up in landfills. Since the bags are highly compressible, they actually make up only about 1% of landfill waste. Bags in a landfill are not a problem, but those that escape into the environment are. Although they make up only about 2% of all litter, plastic bags can potentially harm wildlife and even people. Whales and turtles can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them, often with catastrophic results.
In Bangladesh where garbage cans are virtually non- existent and waste collection is poor, plastic bags were routinely dropped in the streets, ending up being washed into rivers and sewers where they clogged dams and drainage systems, causing flooding. In 2002 Bangladesh took the drastic step of banning all plastic bags and fining anyone caught using one. In the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh you can be jailed for seven years for using a plastic bag. Ireland has had success with a tax on all bags and many cities in North America are considering various ways of reducing plastic bag use either with outright bans or by mounting effective recycling programs. Technically, polyethylene bags can be recycled into various useful items ranging from plastic lumber to other bags, but it is a question of economic viability. California has introduced a law making it compulsory for stores above a certain size to offer recycling programs. Biodegradable shopping bags made of starch are being widely promoted, but there are questions about the conditions under which these will truly biodegrade.
What is the bottom line here? Plastic bags are not the real problem. People are. We have become too accustomed to a disposable society. Habits need to be changed. Yes, taking a reusable cloth bag to the supermarket is a great idea, but realistically, this is not going to happen to any significant degree. Paper bags are not the answer; they also produce litter and take up much more space in landfills. Using fewer bags, perhaps motivated by charging for them, is part of the answer, but it is in recycling that real potential lies. Right now only about 1% of bags are recycled and that needs to be dramatically increased. Bags can also be burned as a source of energy. Instead of looking at polyethylene bags as an environmental scourge, we need to find ways to make them into a viable commodity after they have served the consumer in a useful fashion.