The Problem With Indestructable Plastic Bags

If you are still taking home your new purchases in single-use polyethelene plastic bags, it's time to reconsider your habit - and build a new one.

While the US Environmental Protection Agency argues that the common plastic shopping bag take less energy to manufacture, recycle and ship than the traditional paper bag, an environmental disaster is afoot. Those same plastic bags are made of a substance that is virtually indestructable. Although the bags may no longer serve a useful purpose because of rips and tears - and are thrown out or abandoned by the millions across the globe every year - the plastic itself persists.

The issue is that polyethylene - the polymer that makes up plastic - never dies. It may break into smaller pieces, right down to the individual polyethylene molecules, but it simply doesn't fully degrade.

Dr. Anthony Andrady, a research scientist and author of Plastics in the Environment, said, "Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated, every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last fifty years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment." This doesn't just mean plastic bags - it means every bit of plastic that you've purchased and thrown away, from the clear wrap on your meat purchase to the plastic spout on your juice carton to the bubble wrap on that new piece of electronics.

This is where the problem becomes serious. We've been producing artificial plastic polymers for about half a century. In that time period, our estimated total production has now surpassed 1 billion tons.

Which brings us back to plastic bags. What sense can it make to use a virtually indestructable material for "single use" functions?

Beach strewn with plastic bags. Photo from WorthingtonLibraries.org
Beach strewn with plastic bags. Photo from WorthingtonLibraries.org

A Short History Of The Plastic Shopping Bag

The word "plastic" entered the modern lexicon in 1909. It was originally coined to describe Bakelite, the first fully synthetic resin. The unique aspect of "plastic" was that when heated it could be molded but it retained its shape when cooled. This property was highly desirable for all sorts of industries - and plastic started on the road to becoming a common and pervasive part of our lives.

The modern plastic bag was not possible until the accidental discovery of the first industrially practical method of polyethylene synthesis in 1933. From 1933 to today, the uses and manufacture of polyethylene have grown exponentially. As much as 4 per cent of the world's petroleum may be converted into ethylene - the basic material of any plastic bag, from the bag you get from the grocers to the bag your drycleaning comes in. 

Plastic bags became the bag of choice for shoppers beginning in the early 80's, as large supermarket chains Safeway and Kroger began to offer them. The oft-heard question, "Paper or plastic" was the beginning of a sea change in how consumers would carry home their purchases. However, economics was behind the efforts of businesses to convert consumers to plastic - it driven by the fact that cheap oil made cheap plastic. The ligher plastic bags were cheaper to ship, store and manage. So, while the environmental groups pushed for us to quit using so much paper, the plastic bag industry quietly stepped into the breach. 

It's been less than 30 years since the introduction of the plastic bag. Experts estimate that our current use of plastic bags is 500 million to 1 trillion per year.

A sea turtle with plastic in its mouth. Thousands - that we know of - die each year from eating such debris. Photo from Roots.com
A sea turtle with plastic in its mouth. Thousands - that we know of - die each year from eating such debris. Photo from Roots.com

Killing US Softly

While it's not just bags that cause problems, they are perhaps the most evident of our plastic garbage. We even jokingly refer to them as urban tumbleweeds, after the familiar site of a plastic bag, caught by the wind and tumbling end over end down the street.

But plastic goes much further than this. In fact, it ends up in our oceans in alarming quantities.

One of these regions is the Pacific Gyre. The Gyre is created by a combination of large-scale wind and ocean currents that create an immense, swirling formation of air and ocean. The gyre effectively traps what lands within it - which is one reason that ancient sea mariners avoided them. They were hard to get out of.

The Pacific Gyre has now received the unofficial name of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Some estimates have the amount of floating debris - the majority of which is plastic - as 100 million tons.

At issue is that this debris kills wildlife of all kinds, with additional unknown effects on the environment.

Plastic on the surface of the ocean "photodegrades", leaving plastic molecules suspended in the water to be fed on by microscopic sea life. Larger plastic pieces are often eaten by sea birds and turtles, killing them through slow starvation or blockage of their digestive tracts.

The existence of the Pacific Garbage Patch was predicted in 1988 by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By 2009, it is a grim reality that is twice the size of Texas.

Some Good News

No problem, you say. We'll find a way to break it down and properly degrade it so that our environment will not be overwhelmed. Well, the bad news is that science has tried, and to date, mostly failed.

Dr. Andrady is aware of research that attempted to find out how long it will take polyethylene to biodegrade by incubating a sample in a live bacteria culture. He reports that after one full year, less than one per cent of the original sample had been degraded. Andrady says that this isn't good news: the bacteria only broke the most easily disturbed connections between the polymer chains, and that means that all the plastic was still there. It was just in smaller pieces.

Those smaller pieces become the plastic that builds up in the guts of wildlife.

However, in 2008 there was another experiment performed by a Canadian student that proved nature might still have a trick up her sleeve. Daniel Burd, a teenager from Waterloo, discovered a combination of microbes that can break down plastic bags. With the right microbes and the right conditions, Burd achieved a 43 per cent reduction in a piece of plastic bag in a 6 week period. We are yet to know if this has an application in the real world or if this process will only work in the lab.

It isn't necessarily the answer to large scale plastic pollution in the oceans. There, we still have a huge cleanup on our hands.

What We Can Do

The right steps are simple, as they are in most environmental issues:

  1. Carry your own reusable bags when you go shopping. Your best bet is reusable cloth bags: while reusing paper bags is better than taking that plastic bag at the check-out, paper bags are often made from newly cut trees. If you are going to use paper, look for bags made from recycled paper.
  2. Take home your produce without taking that extra clear plastic bag to hold it. That's how our grandparents did it. Most produce will travel safely without the extra bag.
  3. Avoid packaging! The less packaging, the less you have to carry home and the less bags you need. It also means less of other types of plastic going into our landfills, with the same problems that we have with polyethylene. (See my article on avoiding packaging and saving money.)
  4. Write to your local politician as well as your federal representatives. These people need to understand the issues and take action to move industry in new directions. While plastic manufacturers may complain about restrictions or regulation, human ingenuity will be stimulated by a legislative environment that favors our environment. Without that kind of push, industry will tend to continue in the path of least resistance.
  5. Buy local. There's no better way to avoid plastic than to buy food that has never seen plastic. The farmers' market is a great place to both support your local farmer and get fresh, healthy food without plastic.
  6. Want more inspiration on reducing plastic? Read my hub Living Life Without Plastic.

Want to know more on this issue? Check out these links for additional information:

Polymers are forever

Facts and figures on the true cost of plastic bags

The History of Plastics

Student finds microbe that lunches on plastic bags

Continent size toxic stew of plastic trash fouling swath of Pacific Ocean

Our oceans are turning into plastic... Are we?

Great Pacific Garbage Patch


More by this Author


Comments 34 comments

Clare  7 years ago

In France they have solved this problem very simply - they do not provide plastic shopping bags for free at the checkout. You can buy re-usable solid construction woven bags at the checkout, or bring your own carriers. Most bring their own. I'm always forgetting I've left mine in the car and having to do a trip back whilst leaving my shopping at the checkout :)

The other thing they do here, is reduce packaging enormously by having fresh produce wrapped in waxed paper as you buy it. This goes for fish, meat, cold cuts and cheese. I reckon every country should take on this policy.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

Waxed paper is a much better option for food - the best is soy-based wax, which is completely renewable. I recently discovered that wax paper uses paraffin. Unfortunately, paraffin is another petroleum product.

Humans definitely have to wean themselves of our dependency on oil. Most of the ways that we use it are toxic to ourselves and our environment.


Gypsy Willow profile image

Gypsy Willow 7 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

Disturbing hub, thanks for bringing this to our attention.I remember shopping in France years ago and everyone carried "un fil" a net bag that took up very little room and fitted into your pocket or purse. A practical solution

Thanks


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

It is a disturbing topic - and there is so much we can do to slow and stop its growth: buy products with as little packaging as possible; carry our own bags; buy local; look for glass and recyclable paper or cardboard packages for things we must buy in a container.

The trick is to avoid getting overwhelmed - because that stops us in our tracks.


Christina Miller 7 years ago

I'm always amazed at the pushback from folks on this topic. I've recently been making a concerted effort to take my reusable bags into the store. But then I think about the things I buy in plastic containers that don't come any other way, like carrot juice.

Thanks for being one of those that keep this important issue in front of us.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

It's really tough to get what you want in containers other than plastic - but well worth the effort.

I'll be following up on this Hub with a Hub on plasticizers - which can be absorbed into your foods and are estrogen mimics in most cases. Some products in the natural food section of your store - or at a health food store - are moving to glass. That's the direction I'm going. For products like yogurt, I'm also looking at making my own. Again - no plastic, because I won't be using it.

Rumor has it that yogurt is pretty easy to make too.


Mehedi 7 years ago

Yes you are wright


Clare  7 years ago

Don't you recycle plastic containers in America? That's not just a norm in France, but all over Europe. Everything: milk cartons, juice cartons,yogurt pots - you name it, are recycled here by the council. We have two garbage bins in our house: one for composting waste and one for recycled, and a little one in a cupboard for things that are neither, but I'd say 80% or our rubbish is recycled or composted (mind you we have a super composter that does even meat and fish waste, so we don't even have to throw that away). And that's not just because we are extra conscious of it, it's because the policies of the council require you to divide your garbage and place plastic in a bag for recycling. In England they are thinking of charging people for not recycling their waste.

I'd press your government to make this a norm in the US too.


Clare  7 years ago

Oh, just to say, Europe generally also recycles all glass, metal and paper. The recycle garbage bag contains a mixture of plastic, metals and papers. Then we have a bottle collector in the garage. Sometimes the recycling is collected (ours isn't) or you need to go to one of several local depots and load off your stuff every week. It's a bind, but worth it.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

Europe has had a longer and better track record of recycling. I remember traveling to Switzerland to see family members in 1989, and people there were voluntarily returning glass containers to recycling depots and even sorting it by color! This is still unheard of in North America - perhaps because we have more land around us and it gives us the illusion that our wastes don't have the same impact because it's hidden away from us.

Having said that, most places in North America have recycling programs. In addition, composting programs that take organic waste are becoming much more common - especially in urban areas. But recycling doesn't really address the plastic issue.

Many forms of plastic are not recycled because there is insufficient market for it. Most communities will recycle PET plastic and HDPE 2 plastic. Some may also recycle plastics labeled 5. But this still leaves a substantial amount of plastic which is not recycled - including all types of food or package wrapping and many plastic parts of a container (such as most lids).

In addition, while people may comply at home, they don't necessarily do so when out and about. Fast food generates huge amounts of trash - including plastic. Plastic bags are often used for trash - and therefore don't get recycled, but instead end up in landfills. Estimates are that as little at 1 to 3 per cent of plastic bags ever get recycled.

While recycling helps a lot - it's much better not to have the plastic be part of a product in the first place. Most recycling actually requires a certain amount of "virgin" or new plastic in order to have the resulting product behave properly. So - every bit of plastic that get recycled actually results in additional plastic being made.

Ultimately - the best bet is to get off the synthetic plastics and work towards plastics that are based on natural polymers that break down into components that can be used by the environment. Even the best recycling program doesn't achieve that.


Clare  7 years ago

It's a big subject Monique, and I know now that products in Europe in plastics and metal are labelled if they are recyclable, and I will now check to make sure I only buy those prodicts. There are also biodegradable plastic shopping bags in England. They are sort of annoying but funny, because if you forget them them and leave them in the back of a cupboard, some time later you go back and find they are disintegrating.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

Amazing! They must be making the biodegradable plastic from corn resin... but I didn't realize they were THAT good at degrading! ;-)


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 7 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Hi Monique, although it is not as widespread as it is in other countries, but there are shopping malls already offering reusable bags with the incentives for double points of the rebates if you use them. So it is a good promotion. I wonder when we can totally eliminate the use of plastic bags. Maybe if the gov't makes it a policy of sorts.

By the way, congratulations! Your hub is one of the HUBNUGGETS nominee for this week Nugget Fever! Check it out! http://hubpages.com/community/Nugget-Fever

I warmly invite you to join the hubnugget fun by voting and asking your friends to vote for your hub too. The more votes, the merrier. :-) Enjoy the hubnuggets!


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

ripplemaker - I am thrilled to have another Hub chosen for HubNuggets! Woohoo! I'll be more than happy to peruse the other fine entries... ;-)


Eric 7 years ago

I feel this is the most relevant hub of the ones I've read. To see these facts laid out like this is worrying. I hope the pressure wil begin to tell on the politicians because I doubt the manufacturers will volunteer to stop making money...


ellen 7 years ago

Very well written, Monique. I agree with the relevance issue as well. I hope the current administration brings to the light the several ways we are destroying our environment. Too bad there cannot be a rise in price, as in the cigarette market, where store owners are forced to pay a surcharge if they order plastic bags...it is interesting to see how most large chain supermarkets offer the reusable bags, but heck, I wish they made them larger!

Nice job...keep up the good work.


charanjeet kaur profile image

charanjeet kaur 7 years ago from Delhi

Wow interestingly written article and very well stated with facts, it is a sad state and somehitng needs to be taken care of. When i was in Europe i agree to many of the earlier commentators that country is very cautious about reusing and i have never seen anything like the people who take an effort and time to recylce plastic cans, to paper. It is awesome, In India things are way different and it is extremely bad as in the recent times the floods in mumbai were caused as all the plastic bags had clogged the drains. Now major super markets are using bio degradable plastic and awareness is the only key to figth the battle.

Congrats for a hubnugget nomination too...


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

I read that plastic bags were a huge factor in recent floods in India. It's unbelievable that something that we take so for granted - single use plastic bags - could cause the kinds of environmental issues that we see.

More and more jurisdictions are banning these bags - China, the Indian state of Himachai Prades, and South Africa as well.


Joelle Burnette profile image

Joelle Burnette 7 years ago

You know kids with their pencils...my kids recently fell in love with the pencils that are made with no wood, rather from rolled newpaper or other paper (like old money). Maybe someone could roll all this plastic to form pencils and other similar products.

Also, I've gotten used to carrying my own canvas and multi-use bags into the grocery store, but is anyone else like me? For some reason, I tend to forget to grab them when I'm going into other stores like Target or the fabric store and such.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

I think there are more and more people who are doing like you and me - carrying their own cloth and reusable bags.

Here's a trick when I forget my bags: I simply take the groceries out of the store with my sales receipt in hand! Then, I pile it in the back of my car without bags. One time doing that and I came up with a system that made sure I had bags in both my car and my home, in a place that was easy to get them from.

Also, if you are looking for fun and handy reusable bags, check out my hub: http://hubpages.com/hub/Green-Is-In. There are some great options out there. And they are fashionable - so more fun when you are going shopping for clothes or fabric.


glassvisage profile image

glassvisage 7 years ago from Northern California

Great Hub. My county is currently debating whether or not to pass a "plastic bag tax" that would make it so people would pay to use them, essentially. Right now, there's a countywide ban on the tax... We'll see what happens next!


Jmell 7 years ago

Oh my....I loved this Hub. I'm a recycle freak and have been for many years! and yes, I do have the cloth bags for grocery shopping - and several totes in my car just in case I forget the grocery bag. I wish more people were aware of the hazards of plastic bags - and I wish the US would ban them.


Melody Lagrimas profile image

Melody Lagrimas 7 years ago from Philippines

This is a great hub. Glad to have found it. We need to be aware of the consequences of using plastic bags indeed, thanks, Monique.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

Jmell and Melody - thanks for dropping by! ;-)

This is a topic I am very passionate about. I'm glad that others are too. I'd also like to see a ban - and more government promotion of both technology to properly degrade the existing plastic in our world, and technology to develop truly eco-friendly alternatives for all those little pieces of plastic that have worked their way into our lives.


webichanga profile image

webichanga 7 years ago

I wonder if I'm wasting my time, then, sorting out all the plastic wraps and bags from the garbage.

As it stands, every single piece of a package gets sorted at our house, including bread wrappers, cheese singles wrappers, etc.

What I don't know is whether or not these products (plus the hundreds of accumulated plastic caps we have) are actually being recycled here in Kentucky.

I would love to have a home system based on the technology invented by the student mentioned above, where I could just dump all my polyethyline bags for 3 months and forget about them.

Kinda like "Mr. Fusion" in back to the future... kinda like that, anyway


LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

Fantastic hub. WE never use them, we just take a bag with us, and don't get that awful plastic digging into our fingers!


christine almaraz profile image

christine almaraz 7 years ago from colorado springs

great hub. everyone needs to read this. very well written too.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

christine - thanks for the compliment on my writing! I actually make my living as a writer. I have a site on allergies if you are interested. You can find it at www.beallergywise.com


Bard of Ely profile image

Bard of Ely 7 years ago from Lisbon, Portugal

This is a brilliant hub on a subject that concerns me!


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 7 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

Bard of Ely - thanks for the compliment! It's a topic that greatly concerns me to, which is why I write on a number of related subjects, from green and clean to what's really happening in our environment. Feel free to poke around and see what else appeals to you... ;-)


ExplodingPopTart profile image

ExplodingPopTart 5 years ago from Richmond, VA

I use paper bags or my fabric shopping bag as much as possible. No more plastic! Thanks for the interesting Hub.


Sun-Girl profile image

Sun-Girl 5 years ago from Nigeria

Great hub and very pleased to have come across it.thanks for sharing,i love this work.


daviddwarren22 profile image

daviddwarren22 5 years ago

Great informative article. Lots of learning here.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 5 years ago from Georgetown, ON Author

So nice to get some new comments on an "ever-green" hub. This is a topic that should continue to get attention! It's just one of the many ways that humans need to look at our habits and remember how Nature operates. In nature, nothing is "throw-away"! The "refuse" from one process is the input to another. Creating items that don't follow this paradigm leads us down the wrong road - and into types of waste that poison our environment. And I'm still taking my reusable bags with me to the store... ;-)

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working