Plastic bags provoke problems for both environment and human health. They go to landfills or to the ocean, where the garbage islands are accumulating. These are immense masses of waste generated in the ocean due to currents. Plastic is often dumped directly into the seas or gets there from rivers. Drifting debris of extremely slowly decaying plastic over time stumbles into whirlpools or even “islands.” Animals and humans consume microparticles of plastic with foods daily. All these problems caused by plastic bags naturally lead to questioning these products. Will the environment benefit from the plastic bags ban? If people stop using plastic bags, a replacement would be necessary. The substitutes of the plastic bag should be reviewed to assess their efficiency. While banning plastic bags is necessary, it remains a controversial issue. This essay aims to prove that this measure is not sufficient because there is no immediate alternative for customers to use.
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The plastic bags are made of polyethylene, a chemically resistant plastic. These packages are light and cheap, so they are produced massively. Polyethylene is harmless in its original form; it becomes toxic at the stages of processing and disposal. However, the problem is plastic’s durability: under normal conditions, it decomposes very slowly. Therefore, it can accumulate in the environment for many years, since it is made from waste from oil refining. In theory, ultraviolet can destroy it, but its fragments in nature can exist for centuries, especially in water, which protects the plastic from the sun. Burning polyethylene is also harmful; this process reduces the ozone layer of the Earth and releases dioxins, which affect all types of living organisms from bacteria to humans. It is possible to reduce polyethylene to granules at specialized enterprises and make new products of these granules. At the same time, this is also toxic, since recycling plants leave behind harmful emissions. Thus, polyethylene causes irreversible harm to health both in decomposition and processing.
One can say with confidence that plastic bags damage wildlife, as well. Disposable packages constitute a considerable part of plastic waste. In seawaters, polyethylene quickly attracts dimethyl sulfide molecules, which, as a food, are eaten by zooplankton and animals that are more complex. Therefore, they actively consume it, accumulating plastic in their tissues. Most animals do not decompose plastic once it gets into their organism. Sometimes large fragments of plastic bags lead to strangulation of wild animals, including pelicans, other birds, and even individual cetaceans. These problems created by the use of plastic and plastic bags, in particular, provide ground for initiatives to ban plastic bags.
However, this initiative, potentially beneficial for the environment, should be questioned. It is relevant to review how to replace plastic bags and what environmental consequences it implies. Most often, two alternatives are offered: the so-called biodegradable and paper bags. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to assess the biodegradable plastic impact on the environment, as there is no sufficient data. Biodegradable plastic bags consist of modified plastic, in theory, decomposed by bacteria. However, in real conditions, biodegradable bags decompose poorly, much like ordinary plastic ones. A biodegradable bag breaks up into small pieces of plastic. The smaller these particles are, the easier they move in the environment. They become a part of animals’ and humans’ food chains. In general, it is similar to sugar and sugar substitutes: they wanted to replace the greater evil with the smaller, but it is difficult to say which is more harmful.
Moreover, the notion of biodegradable plastic varies from country to country. It is often used in marketing and advertising as an instrument: “Limiting plastic bag usage should not only help organizations minimize costs associated with producing, purchasing, and/or disposing of plastic bags but could also help them build relational ties with consumers” (Rynarzewska 23). The issue of banning plastic bags often becomes manipulative. It misleads the customer and provokes the wrong choices; moreover, the problem is even more profound and controversial. If consumers are regularly confused or disappointed, they finally lose trust and motivation, and “levels of pro-environment behavior tend to be lower when environment-related knowledge (i.e., the cognitive component of attitude) is low” (Rynarzewska 10). Thus, a common international effort is necessary to introduce uniform, fair practices and to apply strict definitions of plastic products. Then, stable educational practices are required to pass the message to buyers. They should have access to all information for making purchase decisions, which affect the environment.
Paper bags can be decomposed without leaving traces, but this is where their advantages end. The disadvantages are more noticeable: much water is necessary for paper bags production, and trees have to be cut down. What is more, “Manufacturing a plastic bag results in fewer emissions than substitutes like paper, trash, or cloth bags” (Van Doren 4). Therefore, paper bags cannot serve as a sufficient alternative to plastic ones.
At the same time, customers need substitutes for plastic bags if they are banned. Theoretically, the best solution is to carry reusable fabric bags. They are more expensive, but if used at least 20 times, the costs will pay off. If the bag is made of cotton fabric, not synthetic fibers, it is also completely biodegradable. Even when it is torn, it will not harm sea or land creatures to the same extent as a plastic bag.
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Most probably, the campaigns against plastic bags will not stop plastic pollution. Other plastic products go to landfills and poison nature for hundreds of years after a single-use. These are all kinds of plastic cups, ear sticks, drinking straws, and other plastic products; thus, their use should be addressed. Together with legislative decisions, personal responsibility and activism of citizens are necessary to solve the problem of plastic bags. Each citizen can reduce the amount of waste, and banning plastic bags without educational campaigns is not enough.
To sum up, the plastic bags ban implies the necessity to review the alternatives and to compare them with plastic. Biodegradable and paper bags offered as a replacement, pollute the environment as well. While plastic bags should be banned, the definition of plastic bags is to be extended from disposable packages to biodegradable ones as they contain plastic as well. After banning disposable plastic bags, finding an alternative to biodegradable plastic should become the next step. Reusable fabric bags could become an efficient substitute for both plastic and paper bags, but their use is not widespread enough yet. Thus, banning plastic bags does not fully resolve the pollution issue because no common standards are introduced when it comes to alternatives.
Rynarzewska, Ania Izabela. “Plastic Bag Fee: Would Consumers Be Willing to Pay for Plastic Grocery Bags to ‘Go Green’?” Journal of Managerial Issues, vol. 31, no. 3, 2019, p. 312+. Web.
Van Doren, Peter. “Plastic bag bans.” Regulation, vol. 40, no. 2, 2017, p. 63. Web.