Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Convenient But Deadly Plastic Bag.

"Worldwide, an estimated 4 billion plastic bags end up as litter each year. Tied end to end, that’s enough to circle the earth 63 times." - Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

The plastic bag, an apt icon of consumerism and convenience, is the single most common consumer item on Earth, numbering in the trillions. Useful and durable, those plastic bags that you use to bag your groceries and shopping purchases are at the same time deadly pollutants, responsible for the deaths of thousands of marine life and are the scourge of the environment.
Plastic trash in China
Introduce to modern society about 25 years ago, plastic bags are derived from a non-renewable natural resource - oil. Extremely durable and stable, they do not biodegrade but instead photo-degrade under sunlight, fragmenting into smaller toxic bits and contaminating soil, choking waterways and rivers, polluting our oceans and killing wildlife and livestock.

With an estimated 4 billion plastic bags discarded each year and their ability to persist for thousands of years in our environment, plastic bags are the leading cause of deaths of marine life. Often mistaken for food, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags. Estimates from the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation indicated that more than 50 percent of all marine litter is some form of plastic and a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from ingestion of plastic or entanglement.

Turtle feeding on plastic
The Northern Pacific Gyre, a great vortex of ocean currents about 1,000 miles off the coast of California, is an astounding example of the extend of plastic pollution of our oceans. In this vortex, dubbed the "Trash Vortex", lies a swirling mass of plastic trash with an area that is twice the size of Texas. "It's an endless stream of incessant plastic particles everywhere you look. Fifty or sixty years ago, there were no plastic out there." said Dr. Marcus Eriksen, director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

Plastic trash also have the ability to act as chemical sponges, attracting and concentrating the many persistent organic pollutants like PCB and DDT in our oceans which enters into the food chain when eaten by animals. As not all plastic floats - about 70 per cent of discarded plastic sinks to the ocean floor - they also smother corals and kill many marine species living at the bottom of the oceans.

Coral smother by plastic bags
And countries around the world are waking up to this scourge of our environment. From Europe to China to tiny Singapore, through a combination of heavy taxes, outright banning or eliminating the widely used thinnest plastic bags, countries are trying to get a grip on plastic pollution.

With a consumption rate of about 3 billion plastic bags a day, China recently announced the banning of the production of the widely used ultra-thin plastic bags and forbidding its supermarkets and shops from handing out free plastic bags from June this year. Kenya and Uganda have banned flimsy plastic bags by introducing minimum thickness requirements with many supermarkets giving away a free reusable basket with a minimum purchase.

An extremely successful plastic levy - at 15 euros per bag - introduced in Ireland in 2003 reduced plastic bag consumption by about 90% while tiny Singapore, where a whopping 2.5 billion plastic bags are used each year, has its Bring Your Own Bag Day every month. Australia has also joined in and recently announced that it will phased out plastic bags in supermarkets by the end of the year.

While legislations, levies and exploring technology to breakdown plastic back to oil will have an immediate impact on the reduction of plastic bags usage, it is at the individual level that the greatest contribution will come from. Adopting simple measures in our daily lives like using reusable shopping bags, foregoing double bagging for our purchases, avoiding plastics for our needs, proper disposal, reducing and reusing can go a long way in addressing an urgent environmental issue.

*Sources :
- BBC News
- Planet Ark
- Green Peace
- Algalita Marine Research Foundation
- Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation

*Related posts :
- Sustainable Solutions - From Plastic To Fuel
- Man and The Loss of Biodiversity
- Global Warming and The Cradle of Life

Spread the
green message
with caps from