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Environmental Impact of Plastic Bags

Jolly Sunshine Limited | Updated: Mar 17, 2017
  • 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.


How Many Plastic Bags do we Use Each Year?

A common estimate is that global consumption of plastic bags is over 500 billion plastic bags annually. Yes that’s 500,000,000,000 plastic bags used per year. In other words, that’s almost 1 million plastic bags used per minute.

As if that’s not enough, some environmental groups have estimated that up to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. Now, depending on your definition of the word “trillion”, that would be either 1,000,000,000,000 plastic bags or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 plastic bags each year!

For arguments sake, let’s say it’s somewhere between 5 billion and a trillion plastic bags per year.

Biodegradable Plastic Bags - Eco Friendly or Not?

Biodegradable Plastic Bags

Typically, biodegradable plastic bags are made from farmed products like cornstarch, which break down into elements like carbon dioxide, water and methane. They don’t just decompose automatically though - they need the right conditions to decompose.

To decompose properly, a biodegradable plastic bag should be composted. It should not be sent to landfill, as it may contribute to methane emissions. To meet international standards, a biodegradable plastic bag should compost within 12 weeks, then fully biodegrade within 6 months.

Degradable Plastic Bags

Degradable plastic bags decompose due to a chemical additive to oxygen, light or heat and are best suited to landfill. Degradable bags are also referred to as “oxo degradable” bags.

Degradable plastic bags will usually break down automatically. This could range between anywhere from 3 months to 18 months after manufacture, or even longer.

So are They Eco Friendly?

On the face of it, biodegradable and degradable plastic bags seem like a good concept. They can be used just like any other plastic bag, then when the time is right, they decompose - possibly within 6 months (or 18 months for oxo degradable bags).

While it’s not hard to argue that these bags are much better than traditional plastic bags (which can take up to 1,000 years to fully decompose), many environmental organizations argue that biodegradable plastic bags still don’t go far enough in saving the planet, and I tend to agree.

Even if a plastic bag does biodegrade within 5 - 6 months, that’s still plenty of time for it to cause serious issues. A biodegradable plastic bag can still end up in the ocean where it can kill it’s wildlife. When a plastic bag begins to suffocate a baby dolphin, that dolphin will die within minutes. The fact that the bag will decompose within 6 months means nothing - it’s already too late.

Also, given the fact that up to 1 trillion plastic bags are being used on our planet every year, this is still a problem. Even if only say, 1% of plastic bags end up in our oceans, that  still a lot of plastic bags. Every one of these can kill regardless of their biodegradable properties.

So, while these bags are better than traditional plastic bags, there are much more eco friendly bags around.

Best Eco Friendly Bags?

Eco friendly grocery bags are those that have a minimum impact on the natural environment. This means in both the construction of the bag, as well as the disposal of the bag.

So, here are some of the things I would look for in an eco friendly bag:

Requires less energy to be made than other bags

Fully biodegradable (preferably can fully decompose within 6 months or less – in line with international standards such as EN 13432)

Preferably made from a natural fiber (such as hemp, jute etc)

Durable enough to be reused many times (say, more than 2 - 3 years under normal use)

Large enough to not need too many of them.

Benefits of Reusable Grocery Bags

Even if you can’t find an eco friendly bag, you should get a grocery bag that you can reuse over and over again. If you can reuse your grocery bag for 2 or 3 years, then think of all the energy being saved. Every time you reuse your grocery bag, that’s one less bag that has to be produced.

For example, if you reuse your grocery bag over 3 years, and do your grocery shopping say, 4 times per week, that’s 624 less bags that have to be produced. If you use 2 grocery bags each time, that’s 1,248 less bags being produced. And that’s assuming the non-reusable bag is the same size. Most plastic grocery bags are much smaller than their eco-friendly/reusable counterparts (such as green bags, hemp bags, jute bags etc).


Article by -- Dr.Namita veera