Pollution Caused by Plastic Bags
Every minute, one garbage truck of plastic is dumped into oceans. The plastic waste problem is a great issue that the world is facing today. While plastic has brought many great benefits to society, it has done so at the cost of harm to the environment and wildlife. Plastic bags, in particular, contribute greatly to this ongoing crisis. There has been great attention given to single use plastics recently. Many companies, cities, and some countries have banned certain single use plastics. Now is the time for the U.S. to also take part in protecting the environment. The U.S. should ban plastic shopping bags because of the great harm plastic bags have on the environment.
Plastic bags have many harmful effects on animals. Thousands of marine animals are killed every year due to plastic in the oceans and almost 700 species are affected by plastic (Parker). Consumption of plastic and entanglement by plastic can cause potential death by starvation or suffocation. In addition, floating plastic in water sources can transport invasive species that disrupt habitats (Knoblauch). According to the National Geographic, in June 2018 an autopsy of a male pilot whale revealed that more than 17 pounds of plastic was found in the whale’s stomach. This plastic waste consisted of more than 80 plastic shopping bags and other plastic debris (Zachos). By banning plastic bags, thousands of animals can be saved.
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Furthermore, to produce plastic bags a great amount of oil, money, and energy is needed. For the 30 million plastic bags used in the United States per year alone, 12 million barrels of oil are required (Macklin). Converting this oil into plastic bags involves burning fossil fuels which further harms the environment. Around 100 to 500 million tons of carbon are released every year from plastic manufacturing (Macklin). This further contributes to global climate change. There is only a limited amount of oil in the Earth and banning plastic bags will allow this oil to be conserved and used for better purposes. By banning plastic bags, the amount of oil, money, and energy being used can be reduced as well as the amount of carbon released into the environment.
In addition, cleaning up plastic bag pollution costs a large amount of money. In one year, U.S. taxpayers spent almost 11 billion dollars to clean up litter (Penn State). The New York City Sanitation Department collects more than 1,700 tons of single-use carry-out bags every week, and has to spend $12.5 million a year to dispose of them (Adler). In San Diego, California 160,000 dollars were used annually to clean up plastic bag litter (Penn State). Banning plastic bags can save large amounts of money which can be used for better purposes.
Plastic bags also pollute the land and oceans. Only around 0.5 to three percent of plastic bags are recycled. This leads to an estimated 100 billion plastic bags sent to landfills in the U.S. every year (Macklin). Plastic bags caught in trees or stuck in sewer pipes are a common sight in many cities. Plastic bags carelessly thrown away or not recycled end up being blown or washed into the oceans and other water sources. This leads to large amounts of plastic being collected in the ocean, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which covers an estimated area of 1.6 million square kilometers (The Ocean Cleanup). By banning plastic bags, the amount of plastic in water sources and land can be reduced.
Most plastics are not biodegradable, which means that they are not able to be broken down by living organisms. On average, a plastic bag is used for 12 minutes (Center for Biological Diversity). Yet, plastic bags last for hundreds of years before broken into extremely tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics. These microplastics will remain and accumulate on the earth, leading to more environmental pollution, as plastic bags in landfills leak toxic chemicals that can enter water sources. These toxins can be consumed by sea life, which are then consumed by humans, resulting in the toxins entering humans (Penn State). Banning plastic bags can protect both humans and animals from the harmful toxins leaked by plastic bags, as the bags do not biodegrade.
Many countries and cities around the world have enacted plastic bag bans. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to have a nationwide ban on plastic bags (Lights). In 2008, China banned plastic bags eliminating the use of over 40 billion single use plastic bags (Lights). These are just some of the numerous examples that demonstrate that the ban can be effective. There are many cities and states in the U.S. that have certain legislation regarding plastic bags. California became the first state to have a statewide ban on single use plastic bags at certain large retail stores. The law further required that there be a ten cent fee on other available bags (NCSL). Most of Hawaii’s largest cities have a prohibition on non biodegradable plastic bags and paper bags that have less than 40 percent of recycled material (NCSL). The plastic bag ban in San Jose, California led to an 89 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags that ended up in the city’s storm drains (Adler). Other cities with plastic bag bans include: Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; and Seattle, Washington (NCSL). These examples show that a nationwide ban can be possible, as many cities have already proven the effectiveness of the ban.
Some may argue that banning plastic bags will cause consumers to turn to thicker, more durable, and less biodegradable plastic bags which is more harmful to the environment than thin plastic shopping bags. However, what this claim does not consider is that consumers would be more likely and more encouraged to turn to reusable cloth bags instead. Another study based in San Francisco cited that after a plastic bag ban went into effect food borne illnesses increased by 46% due to customers placing food in dirty, unwashed reusable cloth bags. This caused bacteria to increase rapidly in the bags leading to disease. However, a fast checking website, PolitiFact, found the study to be mostly false and the study’s methodology and conclusions to be overly simplistic. A San Francisco public health official further stated that the study had not been peer reviewed and its data was limited (Alcorn). Furthermore, this issue can be easily solved by washing reusable bags or wiping them down with disinfectant.
Others may argue that banning plastic bags will lead to an increase in the use of paper bags, which is worse for the environment (Lights). This is because they claim that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags and will lead to the destruction of many more trees. Furthermore, more energy is used to manufacture paper bags and paper bags release more pollutants into the air than paper bags (The Environmental). However, many cities around the world have also placed a fee on paper bags as well as plastic bags. This will lead customers to use reusable cloth bags instead of paper and plastic bags. Another claim made by those against the plastic bag ban is that it will lead to a loss of jobs for those in the plastic manufacturing and recycling business (Lights). Furthermore, the ban will hurt businesses as customers will begin shopping in places that do not have plastic bag bans. While these claims are valid, these are only small consequences compared to the great benefits of the plastic bag ban.
The U.S. should ban plastic bags, as the environmental consequences far outweigh the short term benefits of plastic bags. Banning plastic bags would help protect and save thousands of animals, reduce the amount of oil and energy being used and carbon being released into the air, save large amounts of money, reduce litter on both the land and waterways, and reduce the amount of toxic chemicals being leaked into the ground. Many countries, cities, and companies have banned plastic bags and have demonstrated the effectiveness of the ban. Some claims made against the plastic bag ban have been proven to be false, while others overlook certain aspects. As Carl Sagan put it, it is the responsibility of each person to “… deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (The Planetary Society). The U.S. can contribute to preserving and cherishing Earth by banning plastic bags.
- Adler, Ben. ‘Banning Plastic Bags Is Great for the World, Right? Not So Fast.’ WIRED, 10 June 2016, www.wired.com/2016/06/banning-plastic-bags-great-world-right-not-fast/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
- Alcorn, Gay. ‘The Plastic Bag Ban is Not Going to Kill Us. Here’s Why Andrew Bolt is So Wrong.’ The Guardian, 27 June 2018, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/27/the-bag-ban-is-not-an-end-in-itself-its-the-beginning-of-a-revolution. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
- Center for Biological Diversity. ’10 Facts About Single-use Plastic Bags.’ Center for Biological Diversity, www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/sustainability/plastic_bag_facts.html. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
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- Myers, Todd. ‘Plastic Bag Bans Do Not Protect the Environment.’ The Environment, edited by Lynn M. Zott, Greenhaven Press, 2014. Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ3010132412/OVIC?u=txshracd2500&sid=OVIC&xid=565a35c1. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018. Originally published as ‘Plastic Bag Bans: Another Feel-Good Eco-Fad,’ Real Clear Science, 31 July 2012.
- NCSL. ‘State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation.’ National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 May 2018, www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
- Parker, Laura. ‘We Made Plastic. We Depend on it. Now We’re Drowning in it.’ National Geographic, 16 May 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
- Penn State. ‘Plastic Bag Bans.’ Penn State, sites.psu.edu/banthebag/plastic-bags-the-environment-economics/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
- The Environmental Literacy Council. ‘Paper or Plastic?’ The Environmental Literacy Council, enviroliteracy.org/environment-society/life-cycle-analysis/paper-or-plastic/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.
- The Ocean Cleanup. ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’ The Ocean Cleanup, www.theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
- The Planetary Society. ‘A Pale Blue Dot.’ The Planetary Society, www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.
- Zachos, Elaina. ‘How This Whale Got Nearly 20 Pounds of Plastic in Its Stomach.’ National Geographic, 4 June 2018, news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/06/whale-dead-plastic-bags-thailand-animals/. Accessed 26 Oct. 2018.