Disposable Plastic Bags… why we need to reduce them

February 19th, 2008 by Rosie

It is devilishly hard to avoid the huge amounts of unnecessary packaging, much of it plastic, that is foisted on us when we shop, but refusing the free carrier bag is one instance when we can easily reduce the amount of plastic we take home.

It is estimated that we each use between 167 and 250 plastic carrier bags per year (10 billion in the UK p.a.; over 1 trillion throughout the world: that equals to 1 million bags every minute; enough to carpet the entire planet in plastic every 6 months) and most of those bags will still be around long after our lifetime. In fact those bags in landfill will still be around long after our children’s, grandchildren and even great great grandchildren’s lives, by which time the mountain of plastic around the world will be suffocating the planet itself.

Already in the marine environment, plastic litter is responsible for killing well over 100,000 marine animals and birds each year either through entanglement or by ingestion. Plastic bags also take their toll. A bag floating in the water is easily mistaken for a jelly fish. Once the animal dies and decomposes, the plastic is released back into the environment to join the ever growing tide of plastic debris and ready to kill the next unsuspecting victim.

Through abrasion and sunlight, plastic in the environment degrades over time into ever smaller pieces, never disappearing completely, but ending up as microscopic plastic fibres that are in the air we breathe and in the sea that surrounds us. No one knows how long plastic remains in the environment but plastic produced at the dawn of the plastic age is still floating in the world’s oceans. Research in 2004 found microscopic plastic particles in every litre of sea water taken from the North Atlantic and in every sample of sand. Hundreds of years of destructive problems caused by something that we use for an average of 20 minutes.

In Guernsey, we are using well in excess of 10 million plastic bags per annum and while some are returned to recycling bins, the vast majority find their way to Mont Cuet where we can ill afford the space. Disposing of our plastic bags in a responsible way is no safeguard against our bag being one of the many that gets out into the environment. Bags of rubbish at the tip get split open by the working tractors or gulls. The coastal location of the tip makes light weight rubbish particularly vulnerable to the effects of the wind, and plastic bags act like kites once they fill with air. Consequently, on a windy day, of which we have plenty in Guernsey, the area around Mont Cuet is heavily polluted with plastic bags. Considerable time and money is spent on the fruitless task of clearing up escaped bags into large black sacks which then in their turn, split open to release their contents back out to the mercies of the wind. Our disposable culture might be convenient but the consequences certainly aren’t.

As well as the waste problems, there are significant energy implications in creating and transporting bags destined to be discarded the minute they have done their brief work, paper bags included. As world oil supplies continue to diminish, with Peak Oil either here or fast approaching, using disposable plastic bags is becoming an increasingly irresponsible use of a declining resource.

Unbelievably, it has only been 30 years that we have enjoyed the convenience of the disposable plastic carrier bag, but in that short time we have allowed ourselves to become utterly reliant on them, and the cost of that reliance will be felt for centuries unless we tackle the addiction now.

Many countries, cities and towns around the world are responding to this crisis and are banning the use of plastic bags outright; others are imposing taxes on them in the hope of drastically reducing the quantity of bags used. Some countries are treating plastic bags as the serious environmental menace that they have become, and not only impose fines, but also prison sentences for merely being in possession of one.

Guernsey also needs to address this issue. It is indefensible of us, as a comparatively wealthy community, to say that the convenience plastic bags offer us is more important than the problems caused by their liberal distribution.

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