The number of humans on this planet, and the ways we manipulate our environment to suit ourselves, are having an unprecedented impact on the natural world. One of the environmental sins that has been prominent for quite some time is plastic bags. People have been arguing over their benefits to business and impact on the environment for decades now. In fact, it has been so long that many people are simply ‘bored’ of the debate! In reality, ditching the plastic shopping bag is one of the simplest things we can do on a daily basis to help the environment. Today we look at the statistics that explain why environmental bags are one of the major pillars of our natural-world protection strategy.
Extent of plastic bag use in Australia
The Clean Up Australia commission states that Australians use more than 6 billion plastic bags per year. Not million… billion. That represents 272 bags per year, for every single man, woman, baby, grandparent and toddler in the country. Of all of those bags that are consumed daily, only a tiny proportion are recycled (more on that later). Every year on Clean Up Australia Day, more than half a million plastic bags are collected from parks and waterways – they are a major source of litter.
Petroleum and resources used in manufacturing
Plastic bags are produced with ethylene, a by-product of oil and gas production. It is wonderful that the resource doesn’t go to waste, but there are actually new plants being built across the world to keep up with polyethylene demand – it is not simply saving a resource from landfill. Over 50% of the ethylene in the world is used to make polyethylene, primarily made into shopping bags, trash liners and product packaging. Polyethylene could be much more effectively used to make long term-use environmental bags for shopping.
Impact on wildlife
Wildlife worldwide is already under intense pressure from the proliferation of humans on the planet, which reduces their available habitat. Add the problem of plastic bags, and many threatened species are dealt another unnecessary blow. Turtles in particular are vulnerable to plastic bags in the environment. Turtles feed on jellyfish, and plastic bags resemble these when floating in the ocean. The plastic bag doesn’t break down in the turtle’s stomach, however, but takes up all available room and starves it to death. When the turtle dies, the body decomposes faster than the plastic bag, and it is released into the water to do the same thing to another animal. You will not see this happening with environmental bags!
Global estimates of plastic bag usage are in the range of 500 billion to a trillion every single year. Of these, only 14% are recycled, and around 1-3% end up in the litter stream outside landfill – ie, clogging drains, sea turtle bellies and empty corners. This leaves between 415 and 830 billion plastic bags to go into landfill each year. It takes somewhere between 3 months (for compostable bags) to thousands of years for these to break down, unlike much other landfill material.
Non-recyclable shopping bags – Low Density Polyethylene
The higher quality shopping bags – the shiny, less readily crinkled and slightly heavier bags that more exclusive retailers give out contribute their entire population to landfill – they are made of Low Density Polyethylene, and cannot be recycled.
Although we don’t often have the option in Australia, paper shopping bags are little better than plastic. They use a gallon of water to create, per bag, and recycling figures seem to be similar across both mediums. The solution, of course, is to go back to the old days and make things to last… like environmental bags.