“Paper or Plastic?” It’s a simple question, but one that brings a whole pile of environmental controversy with it. Which is better for the environment? What is more practical? The best solution is to not have to decide between them at all. The movement to use reusable bags that are brought back to the store again and again has caught fire but needs help to really take off. This is not a problem that can be put off. It needs to be addressed and we have the technology to easily eliminate the problem. Although convenience may be sacrificed, all shoppers should use reusable grocery bags because plastic bags use precious resources, poison the environment, and harm wildlife.
Between 500 and 1,500 billion plastic shopping bags are used worldwide every year (Clapp, 2009). That’s 15,000 to 45,000 per second! 100 billion are used in the United States alone (3,000 a second). These massive quantities of bags require 12 million barrels of oil to create just the bags for the United States. That much oil could provide all the power needed by Fairbanks for 5 years! This is an unacceptable waste of resources. An argument could be made that plastic is recyclable and this is true, but plastic film is one of the least desirable materials to recycle. Less than 5% of bags are recycled, the rest go to landfills and the environment (Clapp, 2009).
Whether in the environment or the landfill, the bags take up to 1,000 years to break down, and when they do breakdown, it isn’t a good degradation. Instead of biodegrading, they go through a process called photodegradation. This means they break down to smaller pieces that are more dangerous for wildlife (Clapp, 2009). These tiny pieces infiltrate everything from the soil to the streams to the rivers to the oceans. When 60-80% of marine debris is plastic-based, there is no place for animals to hide. A whole plastic bag can harm a fish in a dramatic way by trapping or suffocating it. After photodegration, the fish can ingest many small pieces of plastic. These toxic plastics work their way up the food chain, and the concentration of plastic pollution increases as more waste is eaten by bigger fish. Eventually, these plastics will reach humans, and their effects on humans are not completely understood. The material of these bags was chosen for cheapness and strength, not environmental toxicity. These subtle hazards are far more deadly than the obvious ones.
Wildlife being harmed by plastics is not an isolated problem. Up to 86% of all sea turtles are affected by plastic debris due to the anatomy of their esophagus. They have a valve that allows the debris in but doesn’t let it out. Other animals have similarly amazingly high cases of plastic poisoning and damage. Plastic bags look very different underwater and are often mistaken for food sources such as jellyfish. When the turtle or fish goes for a meal it can be suffocated, or it can swallow the plastic. The plastic materials then sits in the stomach of the animal for years, taking up space that is needed for real food and nutrients.
So what are some solutions? Many communities worldwide are beginning steps to outlaw plastic bags; plastic bag manufactures are fighting back with biodegradable bags. Studies have shown though that these bags can take up to 3 years to decompose in the ocean (Müller, 2012). That is an unacceptable length of time. The best solution involves bags that don’t need to be disposed of at all. Reusable bags can be used hundreds of times, and every time a plastic bag would be thrown away, the reusable bag saves that oil, that ocean, that turtle. Even with reusable bags there is a difference in materials that should be used. Cotton bags are not the best choice. Cotton is a very destructive crop to grow and harvest. Hemp is a much better alternative than cotton. Hemp is very basic and easy to grow with little pesticides (Gibson, 2008). A hemp bag has little effect on the environment when it is made and when in use. The best part is after a hemp bag has been worn out, it will readily decompose.
By switching to reusable bags, (preferably hemp) every shopper can make a difference in the health of the environment and its inhabitants. The raw materials that are wasted on bags can be put to better uses and create wealth. The environment will benefit greatly from the stop of plastic debris pollution, and all the creatures of the world will profit. Just by using a reusable bag over and over, every shopper can save the world.
Clapp, J., & Swanston, L. (2009). Doing away with plastic shopping bags: international patterns of norm emergence and policy implementation. Environmental Politics, 18(3), 315-332. doi:10.1080/09644010902823717
Gibson, K. (2008). The Bag Idea. Journal Of Industrial Hemp, 13(1), 73-77. doi:10.1080/15377880801898741
Müller, C., Townsend, K., & Matschullat, J. (2012). Experimental degradation of polymer shopping bags (standard and degradable plastic, and biodegradable) in the gastrointestinal fluids of sea turtles. Science Of The Total Environment, 416464-467. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2011.10.069