What Are the Main Problems Associated with Using Plastic Bags?

Plastic bags have been used on a daily basis since 1977 (Williamson, 2003) as a means of carrying items such as groceries as they are not only convenient but also cheap. However, the over-use of plastic bags has posed significant threats to the environment in recent times as they are non-biodegradable and also a threat to wildlife.

The primary reason for this concern is that plastics bags are not re-used, but simply disposed of in landfills. These problems have both social and environmental impacts that are of global concern. This essay will begin by illustrating the problems associated with plastic bags, followed by the various ways in which society can hope to resolve this dilemma. The manufacturing process of plastic bags commences with the extraction of and handling of raw materials.

Large amounts of energy are required to extract crude oil, and most of the electricity used in the process of manufacturing the plastic used in these bags comes from coal-fired power plants (Greenfeet, 2004). The fundamental components of manufacturing plastic bags are petroleum and natural gases (Lajeunesse, 2004), whereby 4% of the world’s total oil production is used in the production of plastic bags (Greenfeet 2004). The toxic emissions and consequently air pollution of chemicals and carbon dioxide during the production of plastic bags presents a serious concern for the environment.

According to the Institute for Lifecycle Environmental Assessment (1990), the manufacturing of two plastic bags produces 1. 1 kg of atmospheric pollution, which contributes to acid rain and smog. Plastic bags are normally shipped to different consumer countries which also in turn has a harmful impact on to the environment due to excessive emissions of pollutants such as sulphur (Long and Wagner, 2000). Each year there is an increase in demands for plastic bags, and therefore more are shipped, creating further environmental pollution concerns.

This increase in demand has lead to the phenomenal upsurge in the use and misuse of plastic bags globally, both in developed and developing countries. Statistics show that 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags are produced per annum, whereby North America and Western Europe account for nearly 80% (Geographical, 2005; Reusable Bags, 2005). Cheeseman (2007) states that approximately “380 billion plastic shopping bags are used in the United States annually”; in turn, only 0. 6% of this is recycled. Almost 96% of plastic bags are disposed of in landfills (Williamson, 2003).

This leads up to another problem as plastic bags are non-biodegradable – in other words, plastic bags do not biodegrade for over a thousand years (Stevens 2001). Plastic bags may also land in farms and in oceans which have an impact on the wildlife. Livestock such as cows may eat plastic bags while grazing. These pose a threat if ingested as they may tangle in their stomachs, causing serious injuries and potentially death (Dreyer et al, 1999; Rasmussen 1999). Each year over a billion birds and mammals die due to the ingestion of plastic bags (Baker, 2002).

Many of these issues however, can be addressed and even resolved in several ways. Nowadays, a number of countries have begun to impose taxes on plastic bag consumption, with few even banning the use of plastic bags altogether. In Ireland a 15% tax has now been levied on the consumption of plastic bags, which has resulted in a 90% fall in plastic bag consumption. Many Asian and African countries, including China have also issued new policies on the banning of plastic bags (Ganster 2010 and Hill 2010). Some countries are now making new, more environmentally-friendly paper bags.

These bags are biodegradable which means will be able to biodegrade significantly faster compared to regular plastic bags. In Uganda, bags are now made out of banana leaves, making them more eco-friendly and are in themselves biodegradable (Hill 2010). Countries such as the USA have now begun implementing recycling programmes. However, its success has been limited as such services are not yet widely available (McKinney and Schoch, 2003) and the plastic used in the production of these bags are not easily recyclable. In conclusion, the problems presented by such plastic bags lie throughout he production line: from the production process to the way in which plastic bags are overly consumed, through to the ways in which they are disposed of. Although several solutions have been implemented to mitigate the issues caused by plastic bags, there is still much to be done to reduce future, drastic consequences to both society and ultimately the environment.

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