Plastic bags are a true menace to our ecosystems and our waste diversion goals. Barely recyclable, almost all of the 400 plastic bags used per second in the state are discarded. Once discarded, they either enter our landfills or our marine ecosystem.
People think of plastic bags as being free. Instead, they actually cost taxpayers millions every year. In San Francisco alone, City officials estimate that they spend $8.5 million annually to deal with plastic bag litter. That equates to around 17 cents for every bag distributed in the city. Additionally:
It costs the state $25 million annually to manage plastic bag pollution.
Public agencies in California spend in excess of $303 million annually in litter abatement.
Southern California cities have spent in excess of $1.7 billion in meeting Total Maximum Daily Loads for trashed in impaired waterways.
Cities and recyclers spend incalculable amounts removing plastic bags from their recyclables stream, where they jam machinery and add to the manual labor costs of recycling.
At least 267 species have been scientifically documented to be adversely affected by plastic marine debris and it is estimated to kill over 100,000 marine mammals and turtles each year. Plastic bags are considered especially dangerous to sea turtles, who may mistake them for jellyfish, a main food source. 86% of all known species of sea turtles have had reported problems of entanglement or ingestion of marine debris. Plastic bags that enter our marine environment eventually break down into small fragments.
Plastic bags, which are made from natural gas or oil, consume an energy equivalent of thousands of barrels of oil a day just to meet California’s consumption. Numerous recent international, national, state and local reports have called for the banning or drastic reduction of plastic bags due to their environmental damage. Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environmental Program, recently said “there is simply zero justification for manufacturing [plastic bags] any more, anywhere.”
Home / Plastic Bags / Why Plastic Bags are a Problem
Why Plastic Bags are a Problem
Plastic bags are popular with consumers and retailers as they are a functional, lightweight, strong, cheap, and hygienic way to transport food and other products. Approximately 6.9 billion plastic bags are consumed annually in Australia:
6 billion of these are high density polyethylene (HDPE), such as supermarket singlet bags or supermarket checkout bags.
0.9 billion are low density polyethylene (LDPE), such as boutique bags.
67% of HDPE &25% of LDPE bags are imported with the remainder locally produced.
There are two major environmental problems associated with our use of plastic bags.
Firstly, plastic bags are one of the most damaging forms of litter.
At least 80 million plastic bags end up as litter on our beaches, streets and parks each year
While they are estimated to only be 2% of the litter stream, they have a significant environmental impact because they can take up to 1,000 years to break down.
Their persistence in the environment means that they can entangle and harm marine life and other animals. In fact, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that more than 100,000 whales, seals, turtles, and birds die every year as a result of plastic bags.
For example, on 24 August 2000, a Bryde’s whale died in Trinity Bay, 2 km from central Cairns. An autopsy found that the whale’s stomach was tightly packed with plastic, including supermarket bags, food packages, bait bags, three large sheets of plastic, and fragments of garbage bags. There was no food in its stomach. When the dead animal decays, the plastic bags are freed to be re-ingested by other animals in years to come.
On land, plastic bag litter can block drains and trap birds. They also kill livestock. One farmer near Mudgee NSW, carried out an autopsy on a dead calf and found 8 plastic bags in its stomach. The loss of this calf cost the farmer around $500.
Cleaning up this litter is expensive. Australian local and state governments spend over $200 million a year picking up litter (all forms).
Source: Federal Department of Environment HYPERLINK “http://www.deh.gov.au/industry/waste/plastic-bags/”&HYPERLINK “http://www.deh.gov.au/industry/waste/plastic-bags/”Heritage website
Secondly, the plastic shopping bag, a single use item, is a symbol of a wasteful society:
20 million Australians used 6.7 billion plastic checkout bags this year (down from 6.9 billion the previous year). That’s nearly 1 plastic bag per person per day or 345 bags per person per year.
A person’s use of a plastic checkout bag can be counted in minutes – however long it takes to get from the shops to their homes.
The amount of petroleum used to make one plastic bag would drive a car about 115 metres. The 6.9 billion plastic checkout bags we use every year is enough to drive a car 800 million kilometres or nearly 20,000 times around the world – i.e. 4 round trips to the Sun.
Less than 3% of Australia’s plastic bags are currently being recycled, despite recycling facilities being available at major supermarkets.
Only an estimated 19% of the 3.7 billion plastic supermarket shopping bags handed out in Australia every year, are being reused by households as kitchen bin liners.
In many council areas, plastic bags are the single main contaminant of kerbside recycling.
Plastic bags are not free to consumers – they are actually adding an estimated $173 million a year to Australia’s grocery bills.
Source: Planet Ark
While these facts paint a grim picture, an October 2003 Roy Morgan study showed that 87% of Australians were concerned about the impact plastic bags have on the environment. In addition, action is being taken to reduce the impact of plastic bags, for example:
Coles Bay in Tasmania have successfully banned plastic checkout bags in all their retail stores.
Under an agreement between the Federal Government and the Australian Retailers Association (ARA), retailers have until December 2004 to reduce their consumption of lightweight single use plastic checkout bags by 25%. This rises to 50% by December 2005.
More and more people around the world are becoming aware of the environmental issues surrounding plastic bags. Considering their somewhat placid appearance, the impact of plastic bags on the environment can be devastating.
Here are some facts about the environmental impact of plastic bags:
Plastic bags cause over 100,000 sea turtle and other marine animal deaths every year when animals mistaken them for food
The manufacture of plastic bags add tonnes of carbon emissions into the air annually
In the UK, banning plastic bags would be the equivalent of taking 18,000 cars off the roads each year
Between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year
Approximately 60 – 100 million barrels of oil are required to make the world’s plastic bags each year
Most plastic bags take over 400 years to biodegrade. Some figures indicate that plastic bags could take over 1000 years to break down. (I guess nobody will live long enough to find out!). This means not one plastic bag has ever naturally biodegraded.
China uses around 3 billion plastic bags each day!
In the UK, each person uses around 220 plastic bags each year
Around 500,000 plastic bags are collected during Clean Up Australia Day each year. Clean Up Australia Day is a nationwide initiative to get as many members of the public to get out and pick up litter from their local areas. Unfortunately, each year in Australia approximately 50 million plastic bags end up as litter.
Fortunately, some governments around the world are taking the initiative to deal with the environmental impact of plastic bags by either banning plastic bags or discouraging their usage.
Under current city law, large supermarkets and chain drugstores, such as Safeway and Walgreens, only may provide three kinds of bags to customers at the checkout stand: recyclable paper bags, compostable plastic bags and reusable bags.
All single-use disposable bags are banned under the old law.
In the new law, Mirkarimi crafted a few exemptions, which include using plastic bags for produce or for garments.
He is contemplating a companion piece to his legislation that would impose a 10-cent charge for paper bags. Currently, retailers don’t charge for paper bags in San Francisco, though some, such as Whole Foods and Rainbow Grocery, give customers credit for using their own bags.
Mirkarimi estimates that broadening the law would remove tens of millions more bags from the environment.
“Plastic bags are a clear example of excess run amok,” he said. “People don’t necessarily realize the composition of the plastic bag or the consequences of the plastic bag. …They’re omnipresent.”
Shari Jackson, director of the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Plastics Council, said Mirkarimi’s proposed legislation would have unintended consequences, chiefly increasing the use of paper bags, which have their own environmental problems, and taking away jobs of people who manufacture the plastic bags
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