They’re convenient. We head to the shopping mall, fill our trollies and baskets and head to the checkout. You need something to carry everything you’re buying and plastic bags are the perfect solution. The store loves them too. They can put on their logo and get some cheap local advertising. Those bags cost next to nothing to produce.
The problem is, they have a big, big cost for the environment.
In December 2015, a whale got into difficulty off the coast of Scotland. Animal welfare had to put it to sleep because it couldn’t be saved. A subsequent autopsy found something quite terrifying and remarkable. The stomach of the whale carried 5 kg of plastic bags. This and other debris had caused irritation to the stomach lining. Another similar case occurred about a year later off the coast of Norway.
It’s not just large animals like whales that are at risk. According to EcoWatch:
“For sea turtles, the plastic blocks their digestive tract and the food that is trapped releases gases that render them buoyant, and unable to dive for food.”
The Case Against Plastic Bags
There’s no doubt about the terrible damage plastic bags are doing to our wildlife. There are plenty of other reasons why we should stop using them or at least reuse the ones we have, however.
First, plastic bags do something called photodegrade. That means they break down into smaller, and more harmful, components when exposed to light. This doesn’t happen overnight, either. It can take anything between 400 and a thousand years. Another major problem is that plastic bags are the one thing we are most likely to throw away. When they end up in landfill, they can often draw in other, surrounding pollutants before they get washed into our waterways.
Discarded bags can be a real hazard to land wildlife also, trapping them and causing great distress. But it’s in our oceans that we are seeing an enormous impact. According to the Ocean Conservancy, volunteers have helped to clean over 800,000 plastic bags from US beaches in recent times. This, unfortunately, is just the tip of the iceberg. Once bags get into the sea, they can float for years and will easily be swallowed by larger marine life such as turtles, dolphins and whales.
In the USA alone, around 100 billion plastic bags are given to consumers each year, many of which then find their way into landfill, waterways or end up in our oceans. Several states, including California, are beginning to ban large stores from providing plastic bags but in other areas things are a lot patchier.
What You Can Do
As with most things to do with the environment, the solution is easy. Taking your own bags to the supermarket or store can greatly reduce the amount of plastic that is being wasted. In the UK, they are charging for plastic bags in stores which has encouraged people to bring their own. This has also worked in states across the US – in Washington DC the money collected is used to help clean up rivers and reduce the environmental impact of plastic bags.
It takes little or no effort to carry your own bag when you go shopping and it can have a huge collective and beneficial impact on the environment if we all do it. Not only will you stop throwing toxic waste into the world, you’ll be helping to save a wide range of marine life including whales and turtles.