Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Plastic bags today are filling up landfills, floating around city centres and clogging up waterways and oceans. The mass production and consumption of them has caused great damage to our planet, and only recently has there been any attempts to alter this. But how did we get here? The plastic bag was allegedly invented to help the planet. According to the son of the plastic bag’s inventor Sten Gustaf Thulin, the bag was developed as a reusable alternative to the commonly used paper bag which was causing deforestation. Working for Celloplast, the Swedish inventor sought a way to find a substitute and in 1959 developed the plastic bag. Most plastic bags are made from polyethylene, the most used plastic today which is also non-biodegradable. Thulin’s new bag was quite the rapid success, by 1979 it dominated the European shopping bag market, accounting for 80% of bags used. During the 1980’s the plastic bags became commonplace in the US and since then until very recently have been the sole option in most supermarkets.
Plastic bags, although intended for good have instead wreaked havoc on our environment. According to the United Nations, are now produced at a rate of one trillion per year. One trillion. Taking years to decompose, they sit around releasing toxins and microplastics into the soil and ocean. If plastic bags are left to decompose in the sun, or burnt, they release toxic fumes into the atmosphere causing air pollution. That is only on land, the situation gets much worse when you look at the oceans. With plastic bags being one of the biggest polluting products marine plastics are expected to outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. Animals often get tangled and trapped in plastic bags causing them to starve to death as they cannot move freely to find food. Many marine animals mistake plastic bags for food, for example tortoises mistaking them for jellyfish or animals digesting them as the bags have food trapped inside. These animals that consume the bags can suffocate and choke on the bags or become poisoned by the toxins they have consumed. It is evident that a solution and suitable alternative must be found, the environmental risk of the continuation of plastic bag production and use is too grave.
Would reverting to paper bags be a suitable option? Well, not really, after all the reason the much-maligned plastic bag was initially invented was to stop paper bag use. Whilst paper is much better for the environment as it is easily recyclable and biodegradable there are other problems with it. Most obviously, deforestation. Paper bags require forests to be cut down, there is already worrying levels of deforestation and making a global switch to paper for one of the most in demand products would only increase this to more dangerous levels. A study from the Northern Ireland Assembly estimated that it takes more than four times as much energy usage to produce a paper bag as it would for a plastic bag. The deforestation and refinement process also are said to produce a higher concentration of toxic chemicals compared with making single-use plastic bags. There is also the durability of paper bags to take into question. Plastic bags are far more durable than paper bags and even if paper bags could handle being frequently reused, according to the UK Environment Agency, a paper bag must be used three times to be as environmentally friendly as a plastic bag that is recycled. Cotton bags are also not necessarily a viable option, their production process is apparently the most taxing on the environment. It is estimated that a cotton bag would need to be reused 131 times for it to be more environmentally friendly than a single-use plastic bag. However, they are the most durable type of bag so if everyone could reuse their bags this may be an alternative.
Clearly it is not as simple as reverting to one type of existing bag product. People need to make a more conscious effort to reuse and not throw away their bags, regardless of the material. Even the plastic bag was invented to be reused, not mass manufactured. Heads of state and business need to work together to find sustainable and durable alternatives to polyethene single-use bags. In the meantime, some nations have adopted measures to halt plastic bag use. Bangladesh was the first country to outright ban plastic bags in 2002, a measure introduced to stop floods caused by plastic bags blocking drainage systems. Kenya in 2017 have also introduced a similar ban to stop flooding. New York State introduced a near total ban in 2020 to stop the vast amounts of litter building as a result of the plastic bag waste build-up. Many countries including the UK have introduced measures to try and deter people from using too many plastic bags and also to encourage their reuse. The UK introduced a plastic bag charge of 5p per bag which has since risen to 10p. These are temporary measures and the areas where real change needs to be achieved is in the development of truly sustainable and usable shopping bags and the deep cleaning of plastic waste in our oceans. Hopefully with climate awareness on the rise, we will soon see bigger changes in the way the world consumes plastic.