Why single use plastic bags are a big deal

Single use plastic bags may seem a minor infraction in the scheme of global environmental problems. But they are a really big deal and this blog post explains why.

I'm so guilty. During 2020 I have been getting single use takeaway coffee cups. When COVID started appearing in Australia, all my regular coffee haunts stopped accepting KeepCups. I understand they needed to avoid touching surfaces and reduce contact with customers. The behaviour change back to plastic felt weird at first but now I need to make sure my behaviour change isn't permanent. Because I know. Single use plastic is a really big deal!

Here's a summary of the seriousness of single use plastic bags.

Manufacturing single use plastic bags creates pollution

The process to manufacture and create plastic bags uses excessive amounts of oil and gas. Fossil fuels are burnt, which contributes to global warming. Pollution occurs in the process to make the bags in the first place, before they are even used by consumers.

The quantity is enormous

The American Natural Resources Defence Council estimates that the average USA household uses 1500 single use plastic bags per year. In New York alone, 23 billion single use plastic bags are used each year (NDRC).

It ends up in the ocean

Single use plastic deposited in rubbish bins in suburbia and taken to rubbish tips (aka dumps) finds its way into the ocean. In fact, the Guardian reported that 89% of ocean trash is single use plastic. Dumps can lose garbage during a bit of weather and it makes its way into the ocean. 80% of the plastic bags floating in the ocean originated from open dumps and not from ships. Plastic dropped on sidewalks, gutters and drains makes its way into drains and river systems and then eventually the ocean.

Sea animals die

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme reports that more than 100,000 turtles, whales and marine mammals die each year after eating plastic bags. Plastic bags suspended and floating in water look like their food, resembling jellyfish. Based on autopsies of 370 leatherback turtles, one in three turtles have single use plastic bags in their stomach.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Also known as the Pacific trash vortex, is a location where debris (mostly plastic) is collecting in the ocean as a result of tides and currents. It is a major problem and difficult to physically measure, as some sections are metres deep depending on the weight of the plastic. Sections of the patch with cloudy water are actually water with floating particles of microplastic. Some plastics are accidentally dumped by ocean vessels, but the majority of plastic is sourced from the land. As well as slowly breaking down into a soup of microplastic, the plastic patch blocks sunlight from reaching sections of the oceans, preventing photosynthesis and impacting the ecosystem under water.

Plastic bags never go away

Plastic bags never biodegrade. But they do break down into microplastic, which release dangerous chemicals such as plasticisers, fire retardants and antimicrobials. Microplastic are made of carbon and hydogen bound in polymer chains. They are less than 5mm in size and can be very small. Microplastics are not only in the ocean, but can be found in the air in dust. In some coastal communities, plastic including plastic bags are burnt for fuel and for waste management. Open burning releases toxic chemicals, including dioxins. The documentary A Plastic Ocean provides devastating examples of plastic impact (now also screening on Netflix).

Plastic for dinner

The single use plastic bag is ending up on your dinner plate. Microplastic has been found in beer, salt and tap water (IUCN). Once consumed, the ingredients of plastic, which are carcinogens, can impact the human endocrine system leading to hormone imbalances, infertility, cancers and neurological problems. Plastic is also accumulating in sea animals such as fish and entering our food system directly. We know microplastic has entered the food chain, because it has been found in human faeces. Eight participants from Russia, China and Japan in the study were all found to have microplastics in their stools. Further, 9 different types of plastic were found in their samples.

In summary... single use plastic bags are a problem. They never go away; they end up in the ocean; they block photosynthesis in the ocean; they kill sea animals; they end up in our food and our water and our air; they contain cancer causing chemicals.