The Perils of Plastic: Plastic Bags on the Environment

Plastic bags and the environment

Did you know that over 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide?  The U.S. alone has been reported to consume an estimated 100 billion plastic bags annually. What about the average American family? They comes in at 1500 plastic bags per year, the most of any other country. Most of these bags are used only once and then thoughtlessly tossed away. Less than 1% of these bags are recycled. But what’s truly frightening is that a single plastic bag can take anywhere from 20-500 years to degrade! We are drowning in plastic.

The impact of plastic bags on the environment has been tremendous. We walk around our city streets and the sight of plastic bags stuck in trees and floating around sidewalks are considered common place. Plan on escaping the gross hot inner city this summer for some refreshing fun in the sun? Well, maybe not. According to data from the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanups, plastic bags are consistently in the top 10 pieces of trash collected on beaches around the world. And because of the extremely slow decomposition of plastics,  it is estimated that 70% of plastic bags produced every year end up on the ocean floor. That doesn’t sound too refreshing to us.

Plastic bags and the environment

You might be thinking, “They’ll eventually biodegrade and then the problem is solved, right?” Well, not so much. Plastics don’t necessarily biodegrade, they photodegrade. This means the plastic just simply breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments. These fragments, which are chemical and toxic in nature, contaminate soil, oceans, drinking water and ultimately our bodies when ingested.

So what can we do to combat this growing issue? Let’s face it, a total ban on plastic bags is completely impractical and switching to paper requires far more resources to produce than plastic does. In many forward thinking countries, taxes have been the answer. When Americans hear the word taxes, they automatically cringe, but in this case, the tax comes at the point of sale. Here’s how it works.

In 2002 Ireland became the first country in the world to implement the plastic tax fee. This solution was designed to reign in the widespread pandemic of plastic bag overconsumption. The primary goal here was to change consumer behavior and nothing does this better than hitting the wallet. Consumers began making more conscious decisions about their plastic choices and also began to bring their own bags with them when shopping. This movement has since resulted in a whopping 90% drop in plastic bag consumption! What is even better is that plastic bag purchasers raised the equivalent of $9 billion dollars in plastic taxes alone each year. These funds have been used to start a new green fund for environmental efforts. So, what was Ireland charging consumers for a plastic bag? About $.15 each. If you think about how many plastic bags you use on a monthly basis, we guarantee you’d start bringing reusables too.

Of course there are exemptions from the tax. These include unpackaged goods like produce and meats. The tax has proven beneficial for retailers as well. Saving them an estimated $50 million per year on single use bags provided to customers. Some areas of the US have also caught on to the movement by implementing bans or taxes on plastic bags. California has proven to be the leader in the movement with more cities than any other state on the bandwagon. All around, the tax has prompted a more socially responsible movement where even just carrying a single use plastic bag might score you some serious side eye from locals.

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One reusable bag can eliminate hundreds if not thousands of single use plastic bags from our environment. Although many of us probably don’t live in areas where plastic is banned or taxed, that doesn’t mean you cant follow the trend. Every little bit helps, even if your motivations aren’t out of being hit in the pocket by a plastic tax. Remember to bring your reusable bags every time you plan to grocery shop. It’s a painless way to contribute to a greener future.

  • Hi Jessica,

    I’m so glad you wrote this article. Plastic bags in the environment are such a detriment to out environment. I remember being a little kid and looking at the pile of bags we had collected over the age, it was ridiculous. I also remember being at the grocery store and packers putting like one or two small things in the bags before moving to the next bag. I now live in Portugal where they charge 5 to 10 cents depending on the bag you use. Its amazing to see how much they consider buying a bag before they spend the 10 cents. No one wants to loose money! lol.

    Kind Regards,
    Omar JAckson

    • You are absolutely right. The largest issue in this case is changing consumer behavior. We all know it isn’t pleasant to be taxed, but in some cases, these taxes can be the driving force behind getting people to rethink their impulsive decisions. Simply because now, there is a consequence to the action in question. We are glad to also hear that your area is on the bandwagon with this and we hope to see more legislation in regards to plastic bags in the future.