As Greta Thunberg prepares to return to school after a yearlong crusade for climate protection, we can safely say that the war is far from over. In fact, we are still in the initial stages of the battle for a safer environment as activists all over the world are still baffled by the overwhelming lack of awareness among common citizens regarding the issue. Even the so-called educated class in several developed countries seem to think of global warming as an unnecessarily hyped topic that politicians use to garner votes.
There is a need for widespread discussion regarding the harmful human habits which cause massive destruction to nature and the environment and will sooner or later become the cause of our extinction. Today, we will focus our attention on one such specific habit that almost all of us are guilty of practicing- the use of Plastic Bags, or Disposable plastic bags to be more accurate.
Yes, they are convenient. And yes, they are everywhere. Despite the ban on plastic bags in many regions of the world, it remains mostly in theory and most of us continue to use it under some pretext or other. Let us get a clear understanding of why banning plastic bags is essential and urgent.
1. Biodegradable Plastic is a Myth
If you think that your local shop is being environmentally conscious by using ‘biodegradable plastic’, then you need to research what it actually means. Petroleum-based plastic bags are composed of very resistant synthetic polymers that may take up to 1,000 years until they completely degrade in natural environments. Most countries have started or have at least promised to stop using single-use plastic and instead opt for more ‘green’ alternatives.
These biodegradable plastics can be broken down by microbes, chewed up, and turned into biomass, water and carbon dioxide (or in the absence of oxygen, methane rather than CO2). But what is missed in the discussion is the fact that they can be decomposed only in industrial-scale composting conditions.
Imogen Napper and Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth in the UK tested compostable, biodegradable, oxo-biodegradable, and conventional polythene plastic bags in three different natural environments: buried in the ground, outdoors exposed to air and sunlight, and submerged in the sea. Not one of the bags broke down completely in all of the environments tested. In particular, the biodegradable bag survived in soil and sea almost unscathed.
The decomposition occurs in a specific environment of heat and micro-organisms which do not exist in nature. If all biodegradable plastic is to be removed from the planet, the first condition is that they need to reach industrial decomposing centers which, in the current scenario, they do not. Hence the use of biodegradable plastics does not solve the problem of using plastic bags.
2. Our Attitudes towards Disposal of Plastic Bags is Incorrect
Source: Earth Eclipse
Ironically, plastics were invented to solve environmental problems. It is a durable material that was meant to reduce the cutting of trees, mining for metals and to make electronic gadgets cheaper. In its pure form, plastics can be reused and recycled. The problem is not so much with plastic bags themselves but with the way we dispose of it. Instead of reusing the same plastic bag every time we go out grocery shopping, we buy one in every shop every day. That is the root cause of all problems.
We simply dump the plastic bags after one use and they end up in landfills. All of us have seen images of mountains of plastics choking landfills and littering oceans. Plastics are not going to disappear into the earth and their accumulation harms terrestrial as well as marine life. A study found that almost 35% of turtle deaths are caused by animals ingesting plastic.
As per ABC News reports, a 2008 crocodile autopsy in Australia found 25 bags in its stomach.
Once plastic enters the food web, it is ingested by humans who eat fish or any animal which feeds on fish. Plastics are harmful to human health not only because we are incapable of digesting it but also because the chemicals found in plastic have been seen to interfere with the natural flow of hormonal activities in the body. Some of us worsen the situation by burning plastic. Burning plastic only releases extremely toxic fumes into the air. Plastics turn into micro-particles that are invisible to the eye but are ingested by us and they enter our bodies without us realizing it.
3. Cleaning up Plastic Bag Garbage is Expensive
Only about 5% of plastic bags are recycled. The rest of them are simply dumped. The cost of cleaning plastic bags is huge and this is an unnecessary wastage of public resources. You are paying taxes to clean landfills but this money can be used for better purposes if we didn’t pollute landfills in the first place.
According to the US Census Bureau, each American family uses about 1500 plastic shopping bags per year. That is a massive amount of plastic generation. Thin-film plastic carryout bags are less than 2.25 mils in thickness and can carry their weights 100 times over. However, these thin materials have a life span of about 12 minutes only as they are discarded into trash cans almost immediately after consumption of the goods inside.
4. Plastic Bag Production uses Natural Resources like Oil
Source: The Earthsite blog
The production of plastic bags consumes almost 4-6% of the world’s oil & gas. Most of the plastic is made of polypropylene, which is a material manufactured from petroleum and natural gas. These are non-renewable resources and should be used judiciously. It definitely does not make sense to waste these fuels in the production of an object that can be easily replaced with fabric or jute versions.
In a nutshell, we need to understand that completely abolishing the use of plastics is not practical until we can discover a viable alternative. However, plastic bags are a category of plastic objects that can easily be done away with. Simple habits like carrying a recyclable bag with us when we go out can bring about much-needed relief to the environment around us. And let us understand once and for all, that a healthy environment is essential for the healthy survival of the human species – for you and your family