Plastic bags. They’re unsightly and they’re everywhere. And, when it comes to the planet, they can be downright deadly. The University of Florida reports that “Nearly 200 different species of sea life including whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles die due to plastic bags.” Many from ingesting them as food. Sadly, by 2050, nearly every seabird will be ingesting plastic.
What’s the Big Deal about Plastic Bags?
Birds ingest them or become entangled in them and die as a result. These bags inundate sewers, and are washed out to sea at alarming rates. When they break down, they are eaten by the animals who call the sea home, and wrap around them causing difficulties with movement, breathing, and the ability to flee attackers. These are only a few of the problems plastic bags cause by land or by sea.
Other problems with plastic bags involve them getting wrapped up in trees and power lines, causing sewers to overflow into homes, littering the sides of roads, and breaking down into petrochemical components contaminating groundwater.
Plastic bags aren’t simply a pollution problem. In 2008, CNN reported that China had been using three billion plastic bags per day that required nearly 37 million barrels of oil per year just to create them. That’s an even bigger problem for the planet than the bags themselves and the littler they leave behind. The numbers are staggering, and that’s just one country.
How Big is the Problem of Plastic Bags?
For some people it’s hard to imagine the scale of the plastic bag pollution problem. Let’s break it down into numbers. If you were to begin eliminating plastic bags from your shopping trips, you’d save, on average, six plastic bags per week from being used. That turns into 312 bags over the course of a year.
Multiply that by the average lifespan of 75 years, and it becomes 23,400 over one lifetime. Now imagine if one out of every five people on the planet (1.4 billion people) were to do that. The numbers are mind-boggling. But it all starts with one person taking action.
How Far Does the Plastic Bag Problem Reach?
Some people believe the plastic bag is only a local problem. The truth is that they are becoming problems throughout the world. So much so that many countries are currently measuring their options for dealing with the problem. Most countries are considering carrot vs. stick tactics to address the problem with some going so far as to ban, tax, or fine the use of them.
According to the Surfrider Foundation, several countries have gotten behind efforts to ban plastic bags, or their free use, including:
- China (thin plastic bags are banned and retailers must require a fee for issuing thicker varieties of plastic bags)
- Ivory Coast
- South Africa
- Ireland enacted taxes on plastic bags in 2002 that have resulted in a 90 percent reduction in plastic bag consumption.
- Wales also have a 5p charge for plastic and paper bags.
Countries around the world aren’t the only ones issuing bans on plastic bags. Many states and provinces in countries around the world including Australia, Canada, and the U.S. are taking matters into their own hands in order to reduce the number of plastic bags blowing around city streets and the world’s beautiful oceans.
In fact, municipalities in 18 states have already enacted local bans of their own for plastic shopping bags. Both California and Hawaii have statewide bans on plastic bags at checkout.
The problem is that plastic bags are cheap to make and cheap for stores to hand out to customers. Most retail stores have made the switch to plastic bags in efforts to cut costs. Even among those that do offer paper bags or other options, it is often up to the customer to request them.
As an individual it is up to you to tackle the problem of shopping without plastic bags and/or to address the issue on a local or state level by lobbying for changes in laws to ban their use or make using them expensive or unpleasant enough to change the minds of retailers and/or consumers.
Tackling the Plastic Bag Problem for Yourself
As with any worthwhile change, it begins within. Your decision to eliminate plastic bags must be an intentional and conscious decisions. You have a few options available to you.
Consider carrying reusable canvas or cloth bags with you at all times. Most of them fold up neatly, and can be stacked in a neat pile (or even insider one bag) in the trunk of a car, glove box, or even in a back seat. Having them with you at all times eliminates the risk of being unprepared when shopping opportunities and urges hit while you’re in your vehicle.
It takes planning and commitment to bring them back to the car every time they are emptied. The benefits to the planet, though, are well worth the inconvenience of forming a new habit.
The good news is that business are catching on. There are utilitarian shopping bags available as well as those that have beautiful designs and colors. These come at a higher cost, but can be purchased in colors and designs you’ll be glad to use and proud to take shopping whether you’re hitting your favorite department store, the farmer’s market, or a local grocer.
Another option to consider, particularly when shopping for food is taking reusable thermal bags along. Thermal bags can be used to keep food hot or cold, and can be invaluable for leaving plastic bags behind. Keeping one or two larger thermal bags in a vehicle can handle most cold food needs on a food and grocery shopping trip – even for larger families. They can even help keep food cold during the hottest days of summer.
The best tactic for shopping without plastic bags is to develop habits that make doing so as easy as possible. When it’s easy to do, you’re less likely to fall back into old shopping patterns and more likely to stick with your decision to eliminate plastic bags altogether.
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