I hear a creaking sound beneath my feet as I carefully step through the fresh blanket of January snow — careful to make as little disturbance as possible as my eyes scan the white forest floor and frosty treetops searching for wildlife. Black-capped chickadees can be heard calling through the cold, still air and I can even hear a few singing their distinctive fee-bee song, already renewing coupling bonds and declaring their territory. In the distance a white shape appears to be perched on a large white spruce at the edge of the forest. I quickly raise my binoculars to get a closer look, hoping to see a snowy owl looking for prey or a resting rough-legged hawk. Through my binoculars, however, I see something that doesn’t belong. It’s a plastic bag stuck on the branch, flapping in the cool January breeze. Single use plastic bags litter our environment. They kill wildlife, fill our waterways with plastic, and disturb our natural ecosystems. They hurt our environment just for a minor convenience.
Plastic bags have captured “at least 80 percent of the grocery and convenience store market since they were introduced a quarter century ago.”¹
On average 500 billion to 1 trillion single use plastic bags are used every year.²
The average single use plastic bag is used for a total of only 12 minutes.³
Plastic bags take from four hundred to one thousand years to decompose, breaking down into smaller and smaller fragments.⁴
It is estimated that over 1 billion seabirds, seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals die every year from ingesting plastic.⁵
Worldwide, 267 species are affected by plastic debris through entanglement or ingestion including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, 43% of all marine mammal species, and numerous fish and crustacean species.⁶
Single use plastic bags end up in the environment. Every spring you can see how they accumulate — just look at any fence line and you'll see dozens of plastic bags. With this many bags entering the natural environment, it's inevitable that they will collide with and harm terrestrial ecosystems.
In terrestrial environments, plastic bags break down into tiny pieces that eventually end up leaching into the soil, causing contamination, and negatively affecting the ecosystem. As well, these small plastic pieces can be ingested by wildlife causing wildlife to choke and die suddenly. On top of that, terrestrial wildlife often becomes entangled in plastic leading to starvation. These unnatural death events have a direct impact on the ecosystem.
Plastic bags are not just an eyesore as they hang from the branch of a tree or float down a river — they are a hazard.
The impacts plastic bags have on terrestrial ecosystems are dwarfed by the huge impact they have on marine environments.
When plastic bags find their way to water, they all eventually make their way to large lakes or oceans. As shown above, millions of animals are killed by plastic in the oceans every year. This includes many endangered animals. A 2001 study in Brazil examined the deaths of 92 green, leatherback, and loggerhead turtles; all endangered sea turtles. The study found that 60.5% had ingested plastic debris.⁷ The fact that plastic is having that kind of an impact on endangered sea turtles is a rude awakening. Seabirds are another group of animals greatly affected by plastic in the ocean. As birds look for food to feed their young, often plastic is mistaken for food and fed to the chicks. Fish are also susceptible to plastics in the water as they ingest them as well. When they die, the dead fish are then eaten by other fish, in turn, transferring the plastic.
About 8 million metric tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean every year.⁸ The impact of plastic bags on marine ecosystem are huge. Something needs to be done.
Once you know the impact and can no longer be naive to the problem, it seems pretty simple and straightforward that something must be done; but what?
A tax has been placed on plastic bags in many parts of the world to some success, even reducing the use of plastic bags by 90% in Ireland.⁹ This promotes a change in people’s behaviour without forcing it upon them.
Another option is a single use plastic bag ban. Over 30 countries have some type of a ban in place. This is the quickest way to make a change in behaviour as it forces people to look to another type of bag.
As far as what type of bag to use instead, that can be a bit more complicated. Paper bags remove the problem associated with plastic but add a different set of issues in regard to trees used to create the paper and the greenhouse gases required to produce large amounts of paper bags. Biodegradable or compostable bags are another possible replacement but they only degrade quickly in a compost environment, not hanging in a tree or floating down a river. They are plagued with most of the same negative side effects as conventional plastic bags before they biodegrade. Every study I have read has pointed to one clear best choice. Ether using no bag at all or using some type of reusable bag. These can be used again and again and are far and away the best replacement.
So, should a ban be implemented in your community on single use plastic bags? With all of the issues they bring our natural world, I think the answer is quite clear. Single use plastic bags need to be banned.
1. Gogte, M. (2009). Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?. International journal for quality research, 3(4), 363-375.
2. Warner, B. M. (2009). Sacking the Culture of Convenience: Regulating Plastic Shopping Bags to Prevent Further Environmental Harm. U. Mem. L. Rev., 40, 645.
3. Warner, B. M. (2009). Sacking the Culture of Convenience: Regulating Plastic Shopping Bags to Prevent Further Environmental Harm. U. Mem. L. Rev., 40, 645.
4. Warner, B. M. (2009). Sacking the Culture of Convenience: Regulating Plastic Shopping Bags to Prevent Further Environmental Harm. U. Mem. L. Rev., 40, 645.
5. Ellis, S., Kantner, S., Saab, A., Watson, M., & Kadonaga, L. (2005). Plastic grocery bags: the ecological footprint. Student publications, VIPIRG publications, University of Victoria, PO Box, 3050, 1-19.
6. Laist, D. W. (1997). Impacts of marine debris: entanglement of marine life in marine debris including a comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records. In Marine Debris (pp. 99-139). Springer, New York, NY.
7. Bugoni, L., Krause, L., & Petry, M. V. (2001). Marine debris and human impacts on sea turtles in southern Brazil. Marine pollution bulletin, 42(12), 1330-1334.
8. Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., ... & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 347(6223), 768-771.
9. Convery, F., McDonnell, S., & Ferreira, S. (2007). The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy. Environmental and resource economics, 38(1), 1-11.