1. Hazard to Marine Life, Sea Birds, Animals
Plastic bags do not degrade in the marine environment. Plastic bags photo-degrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller bits of plastic but never completely go away. Marine animals, such as turtles, and seabirds see these micro plastic particles floating in the water and think that it’s food. Plastic cannot be digested; thus the plastic blocks the digestive track and the turtle or bird dies from starvation because their food can’t be digested. It is estimated that over 267 species of seabirds have plastic in their bodies. Numerous studies have proven this fact.
Plastic bags also kill our land animals in huge numbers. See: Animals
2. Not Degradable in the Environment
If we try to dispose of plastic bags by “throwing away”, we fail miserably. There is no “away” for plastic bags. Plastic does not degrade, it “photo-degrades”, meaning it simply breaks into smaller pieces. To degrade, a living organism must eat it. At this time, a living organism that eats plastic hasn’t been found.
According to Capt. Charles Moore, the length of time for plastic to degrade can be hundreds of years or longer.(1) I have found no scientific evidence to dispute this. Thus, the euphemism, “Plastic, like diamonds, is forever.” Because of this, some say that every piece of plastic ever made is still on the earth.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states: Marine plastic pollution shows us that we cannot really throw anything “away.” (2)
Plastic bags are a problem. We can’t throw them away and we won’t recycle them. If you think plastic bags are not a problem, then why does the federal government (EPA) track their usage and track their recycling rates?
3. Pollute Oceans, Rivers and Landscapes
According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), in a report released in 2006, 80% of ocean pollution is land-based. (3) This means that no matter how far from the ocean that you live, an improperly disposed of plastic bag will eventually reach the ocean through our rivers or by the wind.
The NRDC says that “plastic pollution affects every waterway, sea and ocean” in the world.(4) In 2006, UNEP stated: “Over 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of ocean today. In the Central Pacific, there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton”. (4) That was in 2006, eight years ago; imagine what the statistics are now.
To understand just how vast and devastating marine litter is to our oceans, you must read UNEP’s report from 2005 entitled: Marine Litter, an analytical overview. This report will jolt you to reality.
America’s rivers are polluted with plastic. The Anacostia River was so polluted that Washington, D.C. passed an ordinance mandating a five cent fee on disposable carryout bags to fund the clean-up of the river. (5)
Plastic bags not only litter our city landscapes, but wreak havoc for America’s farmers. There have been reports of cows eating plastic bags and dying because the plastic in their stomach prevented their food from digesting.
Cotton farmers also lose money because plastic bags blow into the cotton fields. When the cotton is harvested, plastic bags can damage the machinery. If the bags get through the machinery, they are processed with the cotton. During the processing stage, the bags melt and are then mixed with the cotton fibers, contaminating the cotton. In some cases, the plastic has made it all the way into finished apparel.
The plastic bag contamination has caused some textile mills to refuse to buy cotton from certain regions of the country. This causes farmers to lose out on a crop they have worked on for months, creating economic hardships for farmers.
Plastic bags are a serious pollution problem in many areas of our lives.
4. Contribute to Over-Burdened Landfills
Municipal solid waste (msw) includes all residential, commercial and business trash hauled away each week by the garbage man. In 2011, we as a society generated some 250 million tons of msw, of which 18% was plastic (all plastic, not just bags). (6)
After recovery of materials in the waste stream by recycling and composting, 164 million tons of msw were discarded, of which 18% were plastics. Discarded means the msw was hauled to a landfill. So 29,520,000 tons of plastic was placed in landfills in 2011. Reportedly, about 3% of plastic waste is plastic bags, so 885,600 tons of plastic bags were placed in landfills.
According to the American Chemical Council, a plastic bag weighs 4-5 grams, which is .141096 ounces. (7) This means there is approximately 113 plastic bags in a pound. Therefore, if my math is correct, we placed over 200 million plastic bags into landfills in 2011.
Plastic bags, those that are captured, do contribute to already over-burdened landfills. Cities and other jurisdictions spend millions of dollars each year to maintain the landfills. Therefore, taxpayers are spending their money for storage of plastic bags forever.
5. Produced from Non-Renewable Sources
There are reports that 12 million barrels of oil are used each year in the making of plastic bags. This fact has been reported by most of the major newspapers in this country. Is it true?
Well, I don’t know if it is true. However, I could find no substantiating evidence. I found no reference as to the source of this statement. It is our policy that we will only publish facts, not myths. Facts can be verified, myths are just statements with no basis.
What I did find is that plastic bags are made from crude oil and natural gas. According to the website of American Plastic Manufacturing, in the U.S., 85% of the raw material used to make plastic bags is produced from natural gas. (8)
Natural gas is a fossil fuel which means it is a non-renewable resource because it cannot be replenished on a human time frame. (9) Natural gas can contain heavy amounts of ethane. The ethane is removed from natural gas and, after removal, becomes the chief feedstock for ethylene. Ethylene is the main ingredient in polyethylene which most thin-film plastic bags are made of. (10)
Even though plastic bags are made from a waste byproduct of crude oil or natural gas, they are still made from non-renewable resources.
6. Clog Stormwater Drains
Plastic bags that are street litter can also cause serious problems in other ways. Eventually the bags will blow around until they are caught by stormwater drains.
In Bangladesh and India, plastic bags are blamed for clogging storm drains and causing flooding in both countries. Here in the U.S., San Jose, CA and other cities had severe problems with plastic bags clogging storm drains.
In December, 2010, the City of San Jose and Save the Bay issued a press release stating the following:
In 2007, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board declared three waterways in San Jose – Guadalupe River, Coyote Creek and Silver Creek – so polluted with trash that they violate the federal Clean Water Act. As part of Coastal Cleanup Day, volunteers reported removing over 1,000 plastic bags from Coyote Creek in 2008. Just this past summer, per new regulations outlined in the Water Board’s municipal stormwater permit, the City of San Jose identified 43 “trash hot spots” that the City will now be required to clean up.
San Jose city staff estimates that it costs the City at least $3 million annually to collect plastic bags that litter creeks and clog storm drains. The City’s recycling contractors also support this policy, as plastic bags jam machinery, causing work flow stoppages and threatening worker safety.
On November 20, 2012, in a memorandum to the Transportation and Environment Committee, Kerrie Romanow, San Jose’s Director of Environmental Services stated that the ordinance had an observable effect on the reduction of plastic bags in the environment. The various litter surveys conducted by the department demonstrated a reduction of bag litter of approximately 89% in the storm drain system, 60% in the creeks and rivers, and 59% in city streets and neighborhoods, when compared to data collected from 2010 or 2011 (pre-ordinance) to data from 2012 (post-ordinance).(11) Many cities throughout America report stormwater drains being clogged by plastic bags. As can be seen from the report above, this can be eliminated if we eliminate the source of the problem.
7. Consumers Will Not Recycle
The only true way to dispose of plastic bags is to recycle them. By recycling plastic, we “return to life” a very useful product in the form of new plastic bags or building products. Numerous products are being made from recycled plastics including railroad ties, carpet, and more.
However, very few plastic bags are recycled. According to the latest stats from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only about 12% of plastic carryout bags are recycled. (12)
At this time, the market for recycled plastic bags is very small. If all discarded plastic bags were recycled, the market would grow tremendously. More manufacturers would make more products from recycled plastic bags if they had a steady and reliable stream of plastic bags flowing into their facility.
This “Top Ten” list would not be necessary if all plastic bags were disposed of properly. However, since 88% of all plastic carryout bags are tossed into the trash or left to blow in the wind, we must take away this convenience from most Americans by banning plastic carryout bags.
Learn more in the “Recycle” section.
8. Significant, Costly Part of Litter
Plastic bags are an eye-sore and unsightly litter along our highways. They are in our landscape detracting from the beauty of our cities.
CleanWaterAction.org estimates that it costs the State of California $25 million each year to clean up and landfill these littered bags. The City of San Francisco estimates that it cost $0.17 per bag to manage plastic bag waste. (13)
Plastic carryout bags that are not disposed of properly through recycling cause an enormous burden on jurisdictions throughout the country to clean up and maintain the litter. Controlling plastic bag pollution in San Antonio, Texas costs the city $1.3 million each year according to Texas Campaign for the Environment. (14)
According to Ron Gonen, Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation, New York City pays $10 million each year to send 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills. These are plastic bags that are tossed into the general trash. (15)
Plastic carryout bags are a significant and costly component of litter and pollution.
9. Consumed in Extremely High Volumes
One of the biggest problems with plastic carryout bags is the sheer volume of bags being used. In 2008, according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, the United States consumed 102.1 billion PRCB’s (in one year). PRCB is short for “polyethylene retail carrier bag”. PRCB is what we call plastic carryout bags.(16)
Let’s break that down into digestible numbers.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 there were 115,226,802 households in the U.S.(17) Using the 2008 number of bags consumed, that means that every household in the nation used approximately 885 plastic bags per year or 17 plastic bags per week.
Since one grocery bag sized reusable bag will hold up to four plastic bags of goods when packed properly, only four reusable bags are needed to eliminate those 17 plastic bags per week. Only four! If every U.S. household used four reusable bags each week, 102 billion plastic bags could be eliminated.
See related: 90 Billion Plastic Bags Missing
10. Disposable Rather Than Reusable
Plastic carryout bags are designed and manufactured to be disposable rather than reusable. Thin-film plastic carryout bags, by category definition, are less than 2.25 mils in thickness. Most of them are less than .6 mils thick – far less than your average garbage bag which is typically .9 mils. The American Chemical Council says that plastic bags weigh approximately 4-5 grams, which is .141096 ounces.
Extremely thin and lightweight, plastic carryout bags will carry their weight 100 times over, and more. Surveys have shown that a plastic carryout bag is used for approximately 12 minutes and then it is discarded. Some are reused a few times but the majority are tossed immediately. 88% of plastic bags are disposed of improperly. The EPA says that only 12% of plastic carryout bags are recycled.
The generally accepted definition of reusable is: A bag with handles that is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse and meets all the following requirements:
- has a minimum lifetime of 125 uses, which means the capability of carrying a minimum of 22 pounds, 125 times, over a distance of at least 175 feet;
- is machine washable or capable of being cleaned and disinfected;
- does not contain lead, cadmium, or any other heavy metal in toxic amounts as defined by applicable State and Federal standards and regulations for packaging or reusable bags; and
- if made of plastic, is a minimum of 2.25 mils thick.