Plastic is one of the greatest inventions of mankind.
The uses for plastic in every industry imaginable have literally changed the way the world works.
It’s lightweight, durable, moldable, and seems to last forever.
Therein lies the rub.
Once we’re done with a plastic part, it’s awful damned difficult to get rid of.
Different types of plastic take different times to decompose, but let’s examine a product we’re all familiar with and take a quick look at the numbers.
Experts are divided on exactly how long it will take for a plastic bag to break down. This is because it really doesn’t biodegrade at all.
Plastic bags are subject to photo-degradation. Sunlight will break them down in fragments eventually, but exactly how long that will take is subject to debate.
The generally accepted length of time is anywhere from 500 to 1000 years. We really have no way of knowing, since these types of bags, made from polystyrene, have only been around 50 years or so.
So while carefree ease of operation is of utmost importance these days, we ought to keep an eye to the future regarding our treatment of these seemingly indestructible containers.
They weigh nothing, take up almost no room, can be reused many times, and are so convenient.
Take a look at the facts below. Some of these statistics may be shocking to you.
#20 – The world is estimated to use over 500 billion plastic bags per year. Some guess the number to be closer to 1 trillion.
That works out to be one million bags per minute.
Talk about a plastic addiction.
#19 – We already know that plastic bags are made from polyethylene. But how is polyethylene made?
Polyethylene is made from ethylene – and this substance is derived from natural gas and petroleum.
Could there be an environmental impact if we were to curb our addiction to plastic bags?
In the numbers we use them, probably so.
#18 – Scientists have estimated that every square mile of ocean contains nearly 50,000 pieces of floating plastic.
In some areas they have observed acres upon acres of floating plastic.
These items are discarded from ships and drift into the ocean via storm runoff from all major land masses, contributing to the pollution of our seas.
No place on earth is immune to this.
#17 – Hundreds of species have been caught up in stray plastic, and each year hundreds of thousands of birds and animals die either because they ingest plastic bags or become so entangled in them that they are unable to fly or swim.
One alarming statistic claims that one in every three leatherback turtles examined have plastic in their stomach, and a plastic bag is the most common item.
#16 – Only less than 5% of all plastic bags worldwide are recycled.
This leaves a lot of bags either in the trash or landfill, or floating around on city streets like urban tumbleweeds.
#15 – In the U.S., less than 5 percent of shoppers take their own bags to the store.
Despite the effort of all major chains to increase awareness, it seems it’s just too convenient to take the plastic bags they so freely offer.
More and more people are becoming aware of the problem, but we have a long way to go to make a dent in the plastic bag population.
#14 – Plastic bags we first spotted in U.S. supermarkets around 1977.
Before that, there was only paper available.
Now, when you go to the grocery store you get a choice – paper or plastic. But some chains take a stand and do not offer any plastic bags at all.
If enough stores did this, it’s possible we could make a difference.
#13 – It’s noted that the amount of petroleum it takes to make a plastic bag would propel a car over 100 yards.
It seems that reducing the amount of bags we produce may actually have an impact on the price of gasoline.
#12 – Plastic bags may be around forever. Even if they photo-degrade, the pieces just break up into smaller pieces, they don’t actually get absorbed into the soil.
They remain “toxic” even after they break down.
This means that they could be ingested by animals and still cause problems years after we think they are gone.
#11 – In 2008, almost 4 million tons of plastic bags and wraps were produced, and less than 10 percent of them were recycled.
If it were easier to recycle, would people do more of it?
#10 – Hawaii was the first state to ban plastic bags, in 2012
Many other cities and towns all across the US have local ordinances restricting or banning the use of plastic bags as well.
#9 – Many people think paper bags are the answer to our plastic bag problem, but experts say this is far from the truth.
They cite the fact that they are energy intensive to manufacture and also use natural resources if not made from recycled paper.
#8 – One weird cottage industry that has sprung in particularly poor areas is making clothing articles.
Industrious individuals will collect stray plastic bags that are stuck in trees and littering the ground and make hats and other articles of clothing using the discarded bags.
They then offer them for sale to tourists who love these unique pieces.
#7 – Recycling is the answer, maybe. In many cases, recycling is is a noble and worthwhile thing for environmentally conscious people to do.
But it’s not always the end-all, beat-all process we think it is.
Recycling plastics, and especially bags, can be a costly and time consuming proposition.
Sorting the bags is necessary and costly, collection is very expensive, and cleanliness must be maintained at all times.
#6 – Manufacturers don’t have much incentive to use recycled plastics.
In many cases it’s much easier for them to make new plastic than it is to use the recycled stuff.
Manufacturers are equipped to use certain types of plastics over and over again, but other types are more difficult to reuse.
Methods and tactics have become better over the years, but we still have a long way to go.
#5 – Plastic bags play a role in killing the biggest mammals on the planet.
Many whales wash up on our shores every year. Scientists are naturally interested in why this happens.
The majority of those on which autopsies are performed have plastic in their stomachs, sometimes hundreds of pounds of plastic items.
Much of this plastic is the good old plastic bag.
Plastic bags float in the water forever, and can be mistaken for the natural prey of some marine creatures.
Many of the animals and mammals feed by swimming along and sucking in their food, and they oftentimes suck in plastic bags this way.
#4 – Hit us in the wallet and we’ll respond.
Many countries all over the world now recognize plastic bags as being a real threat to the environment.
In an effort to reduce their use, some countries have instituted a tax on bags.
In Ireland, the tax on each bag is around 15 cents, which seems pretty steep, but may be an effective way to at least get people to think about what all these bags are doing to the environment.
#3 – In Bangladesh, plastic bags have been banned completely since the year 2002.
Plastic bags were discovered to be the main reason why such massive flooding was seen during 1988 and again in 1998.
The overwhelming number of plastic bags clogged the drainage system so much that when the massive rains came, the water had no place to go.
Over two-thirds of the country was submerged, causing massive problems for the region.
#2 – Recyclable plastic bags that are more earth friendly are popping up everywhere now.
Manufacturers use special additives that aid in the breakdown of the plastic and speed up the time it takes for bags to actually turn into compost.
While this is a step in the right direction, it still requires people to do the right thing and put bags in proper receptacles.
There are still weak links in this chain, but it’s another sign that we recognize a problem here and are willing to take steps to rectify it.
#1 – What’s the answer?
The only real answer is to get consumers to bring their own earth friendly cotton or canvas bags to the store when they shop.
This is, of course, a very tall order, and is easier said than done.
The conveniences of plastic, it’s light weight and ubiquitous nature, are also a curse in disguise.
It’s just too easy to take what’s offered at the store and not give it another thought.
Perhaps a two pronged approach would be best, with chains store working with the consumer.
For instance, if stores took a stand and stopped offering plastic bags, stating consumers must bring their own reusable bags each time, perhaps this could make a difference in time.
There is no easy answer, but if we all do our part to make things better, we may slowly turn the tide against the tidal wave of plastic that is assaulting our precious environment.