An estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, that is one million plastic bags in use per minute. As a society we are aware of the harmful effects these artificial bags have on the environment, yet we use them in excess regularly.
What do the numbers say?
The U.S. goes through 100 billion single-use plastic bags per year.
Each discarded plastic bag takes 1,000 years to degrade.
They are the second-most common type of ocean refuse, after cigarette butts.
The average family approximately accumulates 60 bags in only four trips to the grocery store. (Most of which are thrown away after a single-use.)
Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.
The Ubiquitous Problem
This problem exists all over the world. In developing countries like India, leftover foods are usually disposed in knotted plastic bags in open garbage bins. It is not a rare sight in India to see cows chewing on these foods.
Most of the times, cows are unable to entangle the knot and end up eating the food along with the bags. Over time, a large amount of plastic bags accumulate in their stomach of the cow and become hardened like cement inside their rumens (the first belly of the cow), resulting in several premature cattle deaths.
As a result of unorganized disposal of garbage in developing and underdeveloped countries, plastic bags have been choking lakes, ponds and urban sewage systems. In 2012, the Supreme Court of India said, plastic bags pose a serious threat for the next generation.
What’s the solution?
The European Union has called for 80 percent reduction in the usage of plastic bags by 2019. Countries like Italy, Wales, Ireland and France have already begun charging extra for plastic bags or eliminating them altogether, several years ago.
Some states in the U.S., like California and Hawaii, have already banned the use of plasti bags, and Washington state has set up a bag-fee system.
Experts suggest that blanket bans on plastic bags can increase the consumption of paper bags. This switch from plastic to paper is, however, not a sustainable solution. The environmental burden caused by both kinds of materials is comparable.
In fact, a report by Boustead Consulting and Associates suggests that the energy needed for manufacturing and transporting compostable paper bags exceeds the raw material use of a standard plastic bag.
According to findings published by an Argentinian research team in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, charging an extra bag fee can reduce the use of artificial bags. In the study, some grocery stores charged the bag fee and some did not, and surveyors interviewed people about their bag usage and also measured consumers difference in behavior before and after the bag fee was charged.
Although, this can be evidence for a change in the consumption of non-biodegradable material bags, it still does not create a feasibly sustainable solution for consumption of these products overall.
Researchers suggest that not all people are price-sensitive. Some people may ignore the tiny price-rise, pay 5 cents and continue their flippant attitude towards plastic over-use.
So, the key is reuse. Each reused bag can easily eliminate the usage of hundreds of plastic bags. And if you are looking for a sustainable way to carry your groceries home without hurting the environment, then I would suggest using cloth bags, which are available at most grocery stores.