Are Plastic Shopping Bags a Problem in Our Environment?

Plastic grocery bag

With all of the concern about ecology, you might ask yourself, "Are plastic shopping bags a problem in our environment?" There is no easy answer.

History of Plastic Bag Use

Plastic bags are a relatively new item in grocery stores. They were not produced until the early 1960s and not in common use in grocery stores until 1982.

The bags were developed by Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin, who created them for Celloplast of Norrkoping Sweden. Celloplast manufactured the bags worldwide until Mobil overturned Celloplast's US patent in 1977 and other companies began to produce plastic bags.

In 1982, Kroger and Safeway were the first two grocery chains to begin using the plastic bags as an inexpensive alternative to paper ones.

Plastic Shopping Bags Today

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), between 500 billion to a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. The bags find their way into landfills, oceans, rivers, and parks. You can see plastic bags caught in the tops of trees and blowing around parking lots. Normal plastic bags do not decompose quickly. Whether they end up in a landfill, a park, or the ocean, the bags will be around for centuries. When they finally begin to break down minute toxic substances will seep into the ground and be washed into lakes, rivers, and the oceans.

Plastic bags are generally made from a derivative of natural gas and petroleum products. Petroleum-based products are unhealthy for humans as well as the environment in several ways:

  • Contact with petrochemicals can cause a variety of health problems from cancers to the creation of abnormal hormone patterns in the human body.
  • Natural gas is not a renewable resource; once it is used up, it is gone forever.
  • Plastic bags can create problems for animals. Some sea mammals get caught in the bags and aren't able to come to the surface to breathe and drown. Sometimes animals, birds, or fish ingest pieces of a plastic bag that block their digestive system and causes them to die. There are numerous ways that these bags pose a threat to animals.

Some cities have begun to ban plastic bags. Obviously, plastic bags are not good for the environment so you should choose paper, right? Well, the answer may not be that simple.

Paper Versus Plastic Bags

The question nearly everyone hears at the grocery store checkout is a simple "Paper or plastic?" and after reading about the impact of plastic bags on the environment you might think the answer should be paper.

It isn't. Paper bags, although they decompose readily, also have a negative impact on the environment. Trees must be cut and used to make paper, adding to the possibility of deforestation issues, for one thing. Trees absorb greenhouse gases and so fewer trees mean that there can be an increase in greenhouse gases. More of these gases are created during the manufacturing process.

According to the 1989 Plastic Recycling Directory, Society of Plastics Industry, it takes about four times less energy to make plastic bags. It also takes about 90 percent less energy to recycle plastic bags than paper. Unfortunately, most bags, whether paper or plastic, simply are not being recycled.

In another paper, Comparison of the Effects on the Environment of Polyethylene and Paper Carrier Bags, published by the Federal Office of the Environment in August 1988, it was reported that paper bags can generate 70 times more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.

Also, proponents of plastic bag use say that degradability is not an issue since very little materials of any kind readily decompose in a landfill due to the lack of air and light. As you can see, the paper versus plastic question has strong supporters on both sides.

Are Plastic Shopping Bags a Problem in Our Environment?

So, are plastic shopping bags a problem in our environment? Yes, they are but they are not necessarily as big a problem as paper. In fact, they may be less of a problem. Companies that manufacture plastic bags have been researching and working to create bio-degradable plastic bags. More stores have collection bins where customers can leave their used plastic bags to be recycled.

A better solution may be to use canvas and other reusable shopping bags. Many stores are even giving a small discount for customers that come in with their own bags. Each person needs to research the pros and cons of each type of bag and decide which you are most comfortable using.

Are Plastic Shopping Bags a Problem in Our Environment?