Did You Ditch?: The Problem With Plastic Bags

Single use plastics are a problem, and one of the key targets over the years has been plastic bags in supermarkets, clothing stores, and corner shops.  But do you know why?

Are you aware of how many plastic bags there are in the world?

How about how many are thrown away every day?

Can plastic bags be disposed of?

Can they be recycled?

Where do they end up??

Most of us don't think about these questions when we are at the check-out paying for our groceries or those really cute shoes that were finally on the 40% off sale.  We just want to get out of the busy store and head home.  But when you start to think about these questions, and when you hear the answers, you might think twice the next time you ask for that 5p plastic bag, especially now that the government is circling back on its policies and many shops stopping their required reports due to Covid-19.

Plastic bag production increases by the second, and it is estimated the world uses around 5 trillion in a single year.  That is enough to go around the world seven times EVERY HOUR.  According to research, the average European goes through 500 plastic bags a year, but get this -- each bag is only used for about 20 minutes.  So what happens after that?

Well, only 1-3% of all plastic bags across the world are recycled, and the remaining 97-99% end up in water sources, landfill, and strewn across roadsides.

Science time!  Most of these single use plastic bags are not built with breakdown in mind.  In fact, the majority of bags will take nearly 1,000 years to degrade!  What's more, plastic bags are not biodegradable, but are photodegradable.  Let me explain: if something biodegrades, it can be broken down quickly by living things (bacteria and fungus).  If something photodegrades, it slowly breaks down into smaller parts, but those smaller parts are toxic.  And then those smaller toxic parts contaminate the soil, the water, and eventually animals (and us).

As plastics break down, all the nasties contained in the material (like BPA) are released into the surrounding environment.  The chemicals leach out and can be absorbed by crops, but there is more to it than that -- plastics also absorb what is around them.  They are like little sponges, and soak up substances that can be lethal such as mercury and lead.  Plastic fragments that were already considered hazardous become like little shards of toxic waste.  Then, through a process called bio-accumulation, these chemicals become more and more powerful, and more and more dangerous.  If you have seen Blue Planet 2, you know how fatal this can be for wildlife.  We are slowly poisoning our world, killing off species, and endangering our own lives.

That plastic bag given out by the cashier is unfortunately most likely going to end up as litter, and if it gets to the ocean, it will become part of a statistic: 80% of the ocean's litter is plastic.  All this floating toxic garbage has some serious consequences for the creatures that live in the sea.  Over 1 million die because of plastic bags every year.  And they don't just get sick -- they suffer.  The plastic bag gets tangled in the animal's organs and slowly chokes them, while also poisoning them.  It's grim, but that's the reality of plastic pollution.

Still not convinced? Have a quick watch of this mocumentary that follows the life of a plastic bag:

While single use plastics technically have less of an impact on the environment in terms of the creation process (requiring fewer materials to be made as well as less energy input), reusables are designed to be a lifetime product rather than a disposable one.  As long as you are actually REusing the carrier, chances are it will be better for the planet in the long run, especially if you pick out an organic alternative.  Plus, our seal friends are in no danger of being killed by cotton!

So what can you do to help?  

1. Ditch the plastic bag when cashing out – instead, use one of the thousands of reusable bags on offer!  You only have to buy a few, and they last for ages. Just pop them in your handbag or car boot and you will always have them at the ready. Plus, you can choose what style and material of bag you want and make it personal to you! There are so many options for designs, colours, sizes, and shapes, so you can find an awesome canvas reusable bag that is perfect for carrying heavier shopping, or grab a mini cotton tote for lighter purchases on the go.  The possibilities are limitless, and what's more, you won't be contributing to the plastic waste epidemic.  Just be sure you aren't accumulating too many reusables, as this can lead to problems for the planet too - remember: less is more!

2. If you shop online, tick the ‘bagless’ option – be sure you are firm about the decision. Some supermarkets like Tesco are notorious for including unnecessary plastic wraps around single loose apples or frozen goods. If you are unsure of the shops policies, just send them a quick email. If they are vague or can’t guarantee zero plastic bags, consider switching to a more committed store.

3. Try reusable produce bags!  These are great for minimizing waste in several ways: you can skip the plastic packaged bananas, lentils, and oatmeal and instead pick up 'naked' versions which are available in most supermarkets as well as refill shops; cotton or canvas pouches can be popped into your backpack or handbag so you don't need to contribute to the plastic problem; machine washable reusables help reduce food waste as you can control how much you are buying; and these durable carriers are so lightweight and take up no space so you won't be inclined to throw them away to free up room in the pantry!

4. All those plastic bags you have stashed away from before the switch? You can recycle them if you find a facility that accepts them, or repurpose and reuse them so they do not go to landfill! Wrap fragile items like Christmas bobbles in them to cushion in storage, use them to carry wet clothes or toiletries while on holiday (just let them dry and you can reuse again and again!), or even use them for crafting – I have seen countless projects done using old plastic bags, including flowerpots, skipping ropes, and even creating your very own reusable tote.

The bottom line? While it may seem convenient in the moment, plastic bags are not worth the long term consequences. Saying bye bye to those bags is so simple and hardly costs a thing, especially if you figure how much all those 5p bags end up costing over time.

A few years ago I put out a poll on Facebook asking if people used reusables in lieu of plastic, and the response I got was generally pretty positive.  Out of 259 responses, only seven reported to never use a reusable bag.  The other 252 expressed a consistent effort to utilize options other than plastic!  Even better, their explanations in comments showed an overwhelming majority switched due to the new regulations brought in by the government.  These 'taxes' on plastic use have actually had an observable effect!  Now if only the laws could encompass other single use plastics.

However, with the lockdown measures limiting access to zero waste shops, stores turning reusables away, and people being encouraged to opt for disposables...  I worry about the future and how people's habits have changed.  So much progress was being made, and I fear those strides have not only stopped, but slid back.

Curious to see how the results have changed?  I'm currently running a new survey and will update with the results as soon as it has finished!  (EDIT - NOW UPDATED, see above!) In the meantime, I want to know... Have you ditched the plastic bag?

I would love to see which category you fall into – do you use plastic bags always, consistently, when you remember, or never?  I want to read about your journey in the comments! When did you first think about the problem with single use plastics? What got you to switch to reusables? Why do you think it is important to ditch the plastic bag? Feel free to share your story below! xx

1 comment

  1. Your posts are always incredibly comprehensive and helpful. Thank you. So sad that some people are still buying plastic bags in the supermarket. Plenty of options for small bags that can easily fit in a pocket or handbag.


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