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The effects of plastic bags on the environment are really quite devastating. While there are many objections to the banning of plastic bags based solely on their convenience, the damage to the environment needs to be controlled.
There is no way to strictly limit the effects of plastic bags on the environment because there is no disposal method that will really help eliminate the problem. While reusing them is the first step, most people either don't or can't based on store policies. They are not durable enough to stand up to numerous trips to the store so often the best that citizens can do is reuse them when following pooper scooper laws.
The biggest problem with this is that once they have been soiled the end up in the trash, which then ends up in the landfill or burned. Either solution is very poor for the environment. Burning emits toxic gases that harm the atmosphere and increase the level of VOCs in the air while landfills hold them indefinitely as part of the plastic waste problem throughout the globe.
Plastic Bag Litter
Even when citizens try to manage their plastic bag disposal wind plays a role in carrying them away as litter. This litter is not biodegradable and thus where it lands it tends to stay for long period of time. A bag that is eventually ripped to shreds from high winds or other factors doesn't disappear but instead is spread in smaller amounts throughout the area. This can cause more problems as these smaller pieces are carried away through storm drains and often end up in the waterways.
Plastic bag litter is often also the result of human laziness. The plastic bag might make for a good carry on to the beach for the day but once all of the pretzels and chips are consumed an estimated one in three consumers simply allow the bag to disappear into the wind and waves.
With more the 500 billion and possibly as many as a trillion plastic bags in circulation annually this can lead to a catastrophic littering problem. Not only is littering unattractive but it is also a very serious environmental hazard.
The Effects of Plastic Bags in Waterways
One of the greatest problems is that an estimated 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean alone. These bags are very dangerous for sea life, especially those of the mammal variety. Any hunting mammal can easily mistake the size, shape, and texture of the plastic bag for a meal and find its airway is cut off. Needless deaths from plastic bags are increasing every year.
Porpoises are the most common victim. Because they eat sea nettles and jelly fish they are the most likely to mistake the plastic bag for food. If they survive the swallowing of the bag, it is unlikely that they are able to continue with normal digestion and thus eventually die a slow and painful death from toxicity or intestinal blockage.
The environmental balance of the waterways is being thrown off by the rate of plastic bags finding their way into the mouths and intestinal tracts of sea mammals. As one species begins to die off at an abnormal rate, every other living organism in the waterway is impacted. There are either too many or too few and changes within the environment continue to kill off yet more organisms.
The Effects of Plastic Bags on Land
The indefinite period of time that it takes for the average plastic bag to breakdown can be literally hundreds of years. Every bag that ends up in the woodlands of the country threatens the natural progression of wildlife. Because the break down rate is so slow the chances that the bag will harmlessly go away are extremely slim. Throughout the world plastic bags are responsible for suffocation deaths of woodland animals as well as inhibiting soil nutrients.
The land litter that is made up of plastic bags has the potential to kill over and over again. It has been estimated that one bag has the potential to unintentionally kill one animal per every three months due to unintentional digestion or inhalation. If you consider the number of littered plastic bags ranges from 1.5 million to 3 million depending on location, this equals a lot of ecosystem sustaining lives lost.
Without the balance of the ecosystem food sources dry up and starvation occurs. With an increase in plastic bag use throughout the world, the eventual effects could be literally devastating even to the human population.
Recycling Plastic Bags
While it's a noble thought to place the plastic bags in the recycling bin every week, studies have proven that there are very few plants that actually recycle them. Most municipalities either burn them or send them off to the landfill after sorting. This is because it can be expensive to recycle this type of plastic. It doesn't melt down easily and is often not realistically able to be reused from its original form without considerable overhaul to the facility.
The premise of recycling these bags is nice. Yet funding for the upgrades just has not happened and thus less than 1% of all bags sent to recycling plants world wide end up in the recycling project. Most are left to become a pollution problem in one way or another.
Alternatives to Plastic Bags
There are always alternatives to plastic bags and the search for more alternatives continues. Paper bags are a possible option but they also take their toll on the environment. The use of trees to increase the production of paper products combined with the increased energy that is required to make paper bags will also have a negative environmental effect.
Reusable plastic bags are being introduced to regions that want to outlaw the plastic bag altogether. These are stronger and more durable and can be used for three to five trips to the store.
Of course, the reusable cloth bag is fast becoming a favorite among environmental supporters. While thus far no bag is without its issues these are the bags that are currently recommended for use to help protect environmental concerns.
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What is Plastic Pollution?
As the world’s population continues to grow, so does the amount of garbage that people produce. On-the-go lifestyles require easily disposable products, such as soda cans or bottles of water, but the accumulation of these products has led to increasing amounts of plastic pollution around the world. As plastic is composed of major toxic pollutants, it has the potential to cause great harm to the environment in the form of air, water and land pollution.
Put simply, plastic pollution is when plastic has gathered in an area and has begun to negatively impact the natural environment and create problems for plants, wildlife and even human population. Often this includes killing plant life and posing dangers to local animals. Plastic is an incredibly useful material, but it is also made from toxic compounds known to cause illness, and because it is meant for durability, it is not biodegradable.
Next time you go for a shopping, don’t forget to carry a paper or cloth bag. Also, try to avoid bringing plastic bags at home and purchasing items with too much of packaging. This way you can help in contributing towards the environment in the form of reducing plastic pollution whose ill effects are irreversible.
I am concerned about the air we breathe and the water we drink. If overfishing continues, if pollution continues, many of these species will disappear off the face of the earth.
– Bernard Marcus
Causes of Plastic Pollution
While solving the problem of plastic pollution may seem as easy as just implementing recycling or cleaning up empty bottles, the truth is that the plastic causing the pollution can range in size from big to microscopic. The major contributors to this problem today include:
- Plain Old Trash
Plastic is everywhere, even on those items you may not expect it to be. Milk cartons are lined with plastic, water bottles are handed out everywhere, and some products may even contain tiny plastic beads. Every time one of these items gets thrown away or washed down a sink, the toxic pollutants have more of a chance to enter the environment and do harm.
Trash dumps and landfills are unfortunate major problems, as they allow pollutants to enter the ground and affect wildlife and groundwater for years to come.
- It is Overused
As plastic is less expensive, it is one of the most widely available and overused item in the world today. When disposed, it does not decompose easily and pollutes the land or air nearby when burned in the open air.
- Fishing Nets
Commercial fishing is an economic necessity for many parts of the world, and tons of people eat fish for their daily survival. However, this industry has helped contribute to the problem of plastics pollution in the oceans in several ways. The nets used for certain large-scale trolling operations are usually made of plastic. First, these spend long times submerged in water, leaking toxins at will, but they also often get broken up or lost, left to remain wherever they fall. This not only kills and harms local wildlife, but also ensures that pollutants enter the water and fish of the area.
- Disposing of Plastic and Garbage
This may sound a bit confusing, but because plastic is meant to last, it is nearly impossible to break down. Burning plastic is incredibly toxic, and can lead to harmful atmospheric conditions and deadly illness. Therefore, if it is in a landfill, it will never stop releasing toxins in that area.
Even recycling doesn’t cut down on plastic, as it essentially uses the existing plastic, albeit in a new form. The process of recycling plastic can also lead to plastic irritants being released in a number of ways.
Effects of Plastic Pollution
It seems rather obvious that this amount of a material that isn’t meant to break down can wreak havoc on natural environments, leading to long-term issues for plants, animals, and people. Some of the major long-term effects of plastic pollution are:
- It Upsets the Food Chain
Because it comes in sizes large and small, polluting plastics even affect the world’s tiniest organisms such as plankton. When these organisms become poisoned due to plastic ingestion, this causes problems for the larger animals that depend on them for food. This can cause a whole slew of problems, each step further along the food chain. Plus, it means that plastic are present in the fish that many people eat everyday.
- Groundwater Pollution
Water conservation is already a concern in places ranging from California to parts of India, but the world’s water is in great danger because of leaking plastics and waste. If you’ve ever seen a garbage dump, imagine what happens every time it rains – then imagine that being in your drinking water. Groundwater and reservoirs are susceptible to leaking environmental toxins.
Most of the litter and pollution affecting the world’s oceans also derives from plastics. This has had terrible consequences on many marine species, which can lead to consequences for those that eat fish and marine life for nutrients – including people.
- Land Pollution
When plastic is dumped in landfills, it interacts with water and form hazardous chemicals. When these chemicals seep underground, they degrade the water quality. Wind carries and deposits plastic from one place to another, increasing the land litter. It can also get stuck on poles, traffic lights, trees, fences, tower etc. and animals that may come in the vicinity and might suffocate them to death.
- Air Pollution
Burning of plastic in the open air, leads to environmental pollution due to the release of poisonous chemicals. The polluted air when inhaled by humans and animals affect their health and can cause respiratory problems.
- It Kills Animals
Despite countless TV ads over the years showing ducks or dolphins trapped in six-ring plastic can holders, these items are still used and discarded en masse each day. Whether because the mass of plastic has displaced animals or the related toxins have poisoned them, plastic pollution does a lot of damage to the world’s ecosystems.
- It is Poisonous
Man artificially makes plastic by using a number of toxic chemicals. Therefore, use of and exposure to plastics has been linked to a number of health concerns affecting people around the world. The processes of making, storing, disposing of, and just being around plastics can be extremely harmful to living things.
- It is Expensive
It costs millions of dollars each year to clean affected areas after exposure, not to mention the loss of life to plants, animals, and people. As land becomes more valuable, just finding a place to put garbage is becoming a problem in many parts of the world.
Plus, excess pollution has lead to decreased tourism in affected areas, significantly impacting those economies.
Solutions to Plastic Pollution
The reality is that the only way this problem can be addressed is by individuals and companies around the world agreeing to implement practices that reduce waste on every level. The top tips for reducing plastic waste are:
- Shop Friendly
Plastic bags were once a modern convenience but can be efficiently replaced by reusable bags, many of which fold up compactly in order to be portable. Just think about how many bags you typically carry out of a grocery store, and multiply that by the number of times you grocery shop. That’s a lot of plastic! Carry a bag and always reuse plastic bags as much as possible if you have them.
- Get Rid of Bottled Water
People are meant to drink lots of water each day, and plastic water bottles have become a great way to stay hydrated throughout the day. However, most of these are only recommended for single use, and that means that every time someone finishes a bottle it goes into the trash. Many companies now sell reusable water bottles as a substitute, reducing plastic waste and exposure to leaking bottles.
- Forget to-go Containers
You would be surprised at how much plastic is involved in the making and packaging of food containers. Think the coffee shop’s drink cup is paper? It’s likely lined with plastic for insulation (pour a cup of coffee on some cardboard and see what happens).
Plastic food containers, lids, and utensils are all easily replaced by reusable containers, which will cut down significantly on even a single meal’s waste.
- Educate Businesses
Speak to local restaurants and businesses about options that they can switch to for packaging, storing, and bagging items. Many companies are starting to come up with excellent low-cost replacements, such as bamboo utensils in place of plastic ones.
- Get Involved
Speak to lawmakers and get involved with government on any level, and you’ll see how many special interest groups have made it so that we are dependent on plastic without needing to be. Encourage development of items, and propose alternatives when applicable.
- Recycle Everything
Try and select items that come in non-plastic recycled and recyclable packaging, to do your best to properly handle items that can’t be reused. Check everything before you put it in the trash, as more and more items are able to be recycled these days.
Remember that because plastic doesn’t break down easily (if ever), recycling plastic means that it is still plastic, just being used for a different purpose. Therefore, you’re not actually reducing plastic amounts or exposure, even in the recycling process.
Image credit: Geraint Rowland , Paul Williams
Rinkesh is passionate about clean and green energy. He is running this site since 2009 and writes on various environmental and renewable energy related topics. He lives a green lifestyle and is often looking for ways to improve the environment around him.
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