As consumers, for decades we could shop and rely on plastic bags. Even when purchasing single items, we would happily walk out of the shop carrying them in a plastic bag. Many people then chose to use these plastic bags to collect rubbish around the home or re-use them for everything from carrying school lunches to keeping wet sportswear. Once they reached the end of their useful life these would then find their way to landfill or get consumed by the ocean. It is because our discarded single-use plastic bags pollute that we need to ban the bag. Researchers have even called it an ocean emergency as 80% of the waste that ends up on land, shores, on the ocean and the sea bed is plastic9.
Single-use plastic bags are a huge problem for our environment. In fact, plastic pollution as a whole is an ever-increasing problem. It is one that we need to combat rapidly by implementing programs and initiatives that get to the source of the problem. It is imperative that we become passionate, motivated and implement change to protect nature from any more of our man-made plastic8.
Discarded single-use plastic bags are undoubtedly a nuisance for society. Unfortunately, once discarded, we cannot absolutely control or contain where our bags end up. Because plastic bags are lightweight they can prove difficult to recycle mechanically and can blow out of landfills into waterways or nature.
Once in the wild, they move with the weather and the flow of rivers and tides. What this means is that a bag washed into the Ocean in Europe can eventually end up on a beach halfway around the world in Asia.
Further, even when sent off to recycling, many developed countries ship their recycling offshore where the fate of the humble bags is less than certain. Researchers have shown that in the UK we only recycle a third of our own plastic waste10, with the rest shipped elsewhere.
What we should also remember is that it is not just about how we dispose of single-use plastic bags. There is also the problem of how we manufacture them.
Manufacturing single-use plastic bags requires crude oil6. This is a fossil fuel that is non-renewable and using it inevitably contributes to global warming7. What’s more, we also need to transport them, all of which adds further CO2 emissions across the lifecycle of plastic
Single-use plastic bags are also a problem for animals and marine life. Commonly, they are mistaken for food causing animals to choke or become ill from the toxins. The problem does not stop there. Animals, and in particular marine animals can become tangled in them. This can cause them to become immobilized and even strangled.
Humans don’t get away from the problem either. Fish consume thousands of tons of plastic on an annual basis2. Therefore, this also means that we are consuming fish that are poisoned by plastic. The facts are staggering and the MacArthur Foundation predicts that there will be more single-use plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
The problem of single-use plastic bags is widespread. They are a leech on our society and environment and they are a problem that has spiraled out of control.
There have been positive moves in the right direction when it comes to reducing single-use plastic bags. In 2002, the Bangladesh government was the first to impose a ban on single-use plastic bags. As of January 2020, a total of 74 countries have also followed suit. Along with this, 37 countries now charge consumers to use bags1, such as the UK.
What’s more, the EU has implemented a sweeping ban on single-use plastic found in cotton buds, straws, and stirrers. This will come into force in 2021.
The reality of the situation is that we all have to do our bit. Fortunately, plastic bag bans are making a difference.
Whether it is an outright ban or a charge, we are using fewer bags. Better still, bag bans are making consumers aware of the damage they can cause. When you consider that 87 billion single-use plastic bags are used in Europe3, more still has to be done.
In the UK, legislation means that supermarkets are now being forced to charge consumers for bags but some are going further. Lidl has removed its 9p single-use bags from all of its stores in Wales. This completely removes the ability to purchase more, forcing consumers to think about what they are using4.
This is a movement that is educating consumers. It is also a movement that is having a positive effect.
The first bag tax was passed in Denmark in 1993. As a result, residents use on average, around four plastic bags each year. In contrast to this, the USA has more work to do as residents use nearly one bag per person each day. There are solutions and improvements out there to be had, they just need to be more widely spread.
For the good of our oceans and environment, we cannot continue to have countries that are on the opposite ends of the scale when it comes to the number of single-use bags we use. It is about collaboration. It is about understanding and educating which is why people calling for plastic reduction is a vital aspect of the process.
Of course, the best outcome is to completely remove single-use plastic bags from everyday life. At this moment in time, this still seems like a mountain to climb. Despite this, since strides have been made in the reduction of plastic bags, we have seen the introduction of ‘Bags for Life’ as a solution or an alternative.
The idea of a ‘Bag for Life’ is to give consumers a bag that they can use time and time again. It removes the need to use a new bag each time we head to the shop. However, it puts more responsibility on consumers to ensure they actually use them and requires an element of awareness.
Old habits die hard as they say and for too long we have been able to obtain new bags each time we head to the supermarket. To entirely remove single-use plastic bags this form of behavior has to alter and consumers have to adapt.
As supermarkets and shops are adhering to new laws, consumers have become savvier plastic-free shoppers. They have to reuse their ‘Bags for Life’ and remember them each time they head out. Failing to reuse them will mean taking goods home without bags or having to purchase more ‘Bags for Life’ and this is where the solution might not be as good as it initially sounds. The truth is, ‘Bags for Life’ are still made from plastic. The plastic is heavier and once the bag is discarded it can still become a problem for the environment.
Removing single-use bags and replacing them with ‘Bags for Life’ is clearly a move forward. However, some studies have suggested that because the plastic is heavier and that we require more resources to manufacture bags for life they may not be as good as they first seem5. The same study notes that in the UK supermarkets have sold consumers the equivalent of 54 bags for life per household.
Despite this, ‘Bags for Life’ can come in a number of different materials and are not always made of plastic. More and more consumers are now using bags made from natural fibers. These are sturdier, have a longer life, and are easier to use. Clearly, when bags for life are not replaced regularly we have a better outcome, even better still avoiding bags made from plastic entirely is the aim.
So, whether a ‘Bag for Life’ is the answer all depends on the actions of consumers. Along with this, it also depends on the kind of bag that they choose to use. However, there is no doubt that a ‘Bag for Life’, when used in the correct way can help to reduce the impact of single-use plastic bags.
There are a number of knock-on effects when it comes to banning bags. While many will look at the negatives, there are some economic benefits that come with the decision to prohibit the use of bags.
So, while bag manufacturers will have to scale back production, it does not mean the end for the industry. As consumers use reusable bags, this will lead to employment opportunities in the manufacture of eco-friendly bags from natural materials.
Consumers might also benefit from a reduction in the price of goods. By eliminating the cost of free plastic bags, stores may have the opportunity to lower their prices. How much these savings are passed on to consumers is debatable.
We are all aware of the problem of litter. Single-use plastic bags are one of the main culprits.
However, if we reduce the number of bags we use, it could also mean that less public money is spent on processing, recycling, and removing plastic trash from our streets and public places.
It might be hard to believe but single-use plastic bags even cause problems for drainage systems. This can cost millions of pounds to rectify. Fewer bags means fewer problems and more savings. What’s more, it can also help to reduce flooding.
Therefore, the economy can benefit from savings. It will also mean that money can be redirected elsewhere.
It is a massive problem to solve but one that we can all take steps to help remedy. While we need to act fast, it is important that every government and country gets on board. It seems counter-intuitive to have one country banning bags when another is continuing to use them as normal, which seems to be the case when you compare the likes of Bangladesh to the USA.
We also have to be aware of the amount of plastic bags already floating around our environment both on land and in the sea. This is undoubtedly a problem that requires a two-pronged approach. We need to remove waste while also reducing waste and the latter begins by banning bags.
They say that prevention is better than cure and that could well be the case when it comes to plastic bags.
|Dirk Xanthos, Tony R. Walker, International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): A review, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Volume 118, Issues 1–2, 2017, Pages 17-26, ISSN 0025-326X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2017.02.048|
|The Effects of Plastic Pollution on Aquatic Wildlife: Current Situations and Future Solutions. Sigler, M. Water Air Soil Pollut (2014) 225: 2184. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11270-014-2184-6|
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|Ritch, E., Brennan, C. and MacLeod, C. (2009), Plastic bag politics: modifying consumer behaviour for sustainable development. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 33: 168-174. doi:10.1111/j.1470-6431.2009.00749.x|
|Checking Out on Plastics II: Breakthroughs and backtracking from supermarkets. Environmental Investigation Agency & Greenpeace. November 2019|
|Environmental impacts of conventional plastic and bio-based carrier bags. Khoo, H.H., Tan, R.B.H. & Chng, K.W.L. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2010) 15: 284. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-010-0162-9|
|Gervet, Bruno & Nordell, Bo. (2020). THE USE OF CRUDE OIL IN PLASTIC MAKING CONTRIBUTES TO GLOBAL WARMING.|
|Pahl, S., Wyles, K.J. & Thompson, R.C. Channelling passion for the ocean towards plastic pollution. Nat Hum Behav 1, 697–699 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0204-4|
|Wabnitz, Colette & Nichols, Wallace. (2010). Editorial: Plastic Pollution: An Ocean Emergency. Marine Turtle News Letter. 20.|
|National Packaging Waste Database. Environment Agency.|