In the time of most of our great grandmothers, no-one ever used a plastic bag for carrying their shopping. People used baskets or cotton bags or paper bags. The development of thin plastics in the 1960s and 1970s led to our increasing dependence on putting everything in plastic, which seemed to offer several advantages. They were cleaner, more hygienic, waterproof, light and disposable.
For years now, we have all taken plastic bags for granted and have thought very little about their environmental impact. But there are now signs that people are realising the harmful potential of plastic bags and they are becoming increasingly unpopular for several reasons, not least the environmental concerns over landfill sites. Older types of plastic bag are not biodegradable and they can persist in the environment for around 1000 years, which means that landfill sites become full and cannot be reused. Even some of the biodegradable bags take about 200 years to decompose. Choking our landscape with plastic is not a good way to take care of the planet for future generations.
Making plastic bags also uses fossil fuel resources – the hydrocarbons that form the basis of plastic bags are derived from oil. In the future, when oil becomes too expensive, we will have to reduce our use of all plastics and plastic bags will probably be one of the first plastic products to go.
The Litter Problem
A short drive through any stretch of countryside and a quick glance at the trees and hedgerows will quickly draw your attention to the many torn plastic bags that litter our environment. Once you start to become aware of them, you start to realise how bad the problem is. The very thinnest, cheapest bags become easily dislodged from rubbish in bins and blow easily in the wind and snag on branches and twigs. This looks unsightly but can also be dangerous to wildlife. Hedgehogs, squirrels and domestic farm animals can all choke if they try to eat part of a plastic bag.
Plastic Bags at Sea
Plastic bag pollution is not only a land-based problem. People dump rubbish by the shoreline and many plastic bags are blown into the sea. Once afloat, every plastic bag becomes a death trap to marine wildlife. A white, almost transparent carrier bag looks uncannily like a jelly fish to a fish or whale, which then attempts to eat it. Whales and other sea mammals can choke but it is more common for the bag to be swallowed.
Plastic bags degrade no faster inside the stomach of a whale than they do deep within a landfill site, so the animal now faces a death sentence. The bag blocks the exit from the stomach into the intestines, or forms a block to the actual intestine. The whale suffers a slow, agonising death, usually from starvation as no food can pass beyond the blockage to be digested.
Minke Whale Victims
In the last few years, several Minke whales have been found dead off the coast of Norway and subsequent autopsies showed that they had died in this way. One whale had over 20 different plastic bags in its digestive system. Plastic bags pose a danger to any marine mammal, but if the species is endangered, the results of plastic pollution could be really disastrous.
Moving on From Plastic Bags
Very recently, there has been a move away from using plastic bags. China, one of the main manufacturers actually closed one of its biggest manufacturing houses, with the loss of 20 000 jobs because of reduced demand. Some retailers in the UK now charge for plastic bags, to discourage people from taking new ones each time. Major supermarkets recycle plastic bags and there are now more bag manufacturers that produce bags that degrade very quickly – some within only a few months. This may help but it would not save the life of a whale.
Supermarkets now often offer their own branded reusable carrier bag, which is made to last and can be reused many times. However, to end our reliance on plastic bags completely, we must go back to the days of our great grandmothers. But would using baskets and cloth bags really be that bad? The time seems right to move on and finally ban the plastic bag completely.