Persistence of the Plastic Bag
Above you can see a few components of a typical marine ecosystem. These habitats are characterized by water, an essential component to the sustenance of life, as well as living organisms within it, in this case sea turtle and fish species. A more recent addition to this natural environment, however, is the clear plastic bags—a unique human induced contribution. Wait, those shouldn’t be there, right?
As byproducts of human consumerism and the need to convenience ourselves, plastic bags and countless other plastic products are persistent in finding their way to remote regions, such as in the depths of a landfill, or in the middle of an ocean. The human population succumbs to the attitude that by disposing of plastic where we won’t have to deal with it means that those plastic bags, used once for a trip home from the supermarket, are now problem free.
On a more realistic note, plastic bag pollution is a detrimental cause of death for a vast array of ocean life and toward the Earth in general, as it has no biodegradable potential. For this reason, regions such as the North Pacific Gyre have developed expansive garbage patches, covering the ocean surface for areas larger than twice the size of the state of Texas. Garbage is suspended within a gyre by the circulation of water currents confining it to a specific region of the ocean.
Globally, this same process takes place in around eleven different gyres, acting as the end point in the life cycle of plastic bags. As long as the bag remains there, it may break down physically into smaller pieces; however, this just increases the hazard of animals being affected by it.
American environmentalist, Dianna Cohen, recognized the severity of this issue when deciding to venture into the North Pacific Gyre to collect pieces of plastic in a clean-up effort. The garbage gathered was molded into blocks, serving as building materials in undeveloped countries. With this activism, Cohen realized that this one small cleanout of plastic products was enormously disproportional to the continual generation of plastic pollution on a daily basis in every country.
Taking her involvement further on the issue, Cohen formed a Plastic Pollution Coalition with a group of people sharing similar views on the crisis of our inadequate treatment of plastics. Their initiatives are centered on spreading awareness that the recycling of plastics is not solved upon sorting your plastic packaging, bags, glass and cans into the blue bin for the weekly pick-up. The duration of the recycling process actually only succeeds in truly recycling around 7% of the plastic. She further imposes the concept of refusing to use any single-use and disposable plastics. Simple practices such as the use of reusable fabric bags for groceries and reusable water bottles are effective small-scale ways of inhibiting plastic pollution.
This motivation in changing our habits eventually fuels a change at the national scale as well in remediating the problem of plastic pollution. An ideal example of this is with the recent outlawing of non-biodegradable plastic bags in Italy as of the beginning of 2011. This positive step towards reusable bags has halted the disposal of about 25 billion plastic bags each year! Similar efforts performed in areas of China have also accumulated to the prevention of 100 billion bags from reaching the landfill or bodies of water annually. Locally, more and more supermarkets are implementing plastic bag taxes in Canada, which is resulting in a positive turn towards more reusable bag usage by customers.
The extent of the value for a plastic bag typically lasts as long as a single use for carrying goods within a shopping trip. Although the life of your plastic bags may be extended for collecting the garbage in your house or in future shopping trips, those bags will inevitably one day come in contact with a landfill or an ocean. Evidently, the practice of the four R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle and refuse, cannot be stressed enough when it comes to sustaining a healthy environment.