At this point in time, most people are aware that single-use plastic bags are bad news. Plastic bags damage the environment in a number of ways, from suffocating sea turtles and clogging up oceans to littering our streets and leaching toxins into the earth.
Increased awareness of these issues prompted the Australian government (and many other governments around the world) to ban single-use plastic bags nationwide.
Despite this, we still use five trillion plastic bags a year globally — the fossil fuel industry even plans to increase plastic production by 40% over the next decade. A grim report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.
This begs the question: if plastic bags are so harmful, then why do we still produce them? Are they really that bad, or is the whole outrage just media hype?
While navigating the media dialogue and the science of it all, most of us have found ourselves wondering, why are plastic bags bad for the environment?
Understanding the impact of plastic bags on the environment — in real terms — can help to explain why eradicating them is so important.
Here, we take a closer look at the legacy of plastic bags on our planet.
Why are Plastic Bags Bad for the Environment?
The experts agree that there are no two ways about it: plastic bags are harmful to the environment.
Plastic bags are usually made from polyethylene, which is a type of petroleum. This means finite and polluting materials (read: fossil fuels) are used to make them.
The energy used during manufacturing also involves burning fossil fuels. In short, a lot of greenhouse emissions go into making the easily-tearable plastic bags we end up using for only 15 minutes or so.
Despite the fact that we throw away most of these single-use plastic bags, less than 1% are recycled.
Instead, they end up in landfills and surrounding environs, where they continue to wreak havoc on the planet, wildlife, and humans.
What Problems Do Plastic Bags Cause to the Environment?
With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the specific problems plastic bags create.
Most Plastic Bags Stick Around Forever
The last single-use plastic bag you used will likely outlive your grandchildren, their children, their children, and so on.
Unfortunately, plastic bags are incredibly resilient. Each plastic bag takes approximately 1000 years to break down.
It’s important to note that ‘breaking down’ is not the same as ‘biodegrading’. When a material biodegrades, it is reduced to its chemical components by the earth. Plastic bags do not biodegrade. Instead, they break down into smaller plastics that continue to harm the earth.
Those tiny plastic particles can survive the harshest conditions, such as sizzling under a blistering sun or being frozen into Arctic ice for years.
They live on and on, causing all kinds of damage along the way.
Plastic Bags Leach Toxins into the Air & Earth
We know plastic bags are derived from petroleum.
This means that during production and manufacturing, plastic bags leach toxins into the air and waterways — that’s the very air we breathe and the water we use. If plastic bags are burnt, they release toxic chemicals into the air which cause air pollution.
We also know that plastic bags don’t biodegrade. So, when plastic bags are dumped into landfills, they spend hundreds of years emitting dangerous gases and chemicals (including methane, carbon dioxide, and leachates), into the surrounding earth. These chemicals are toxic to the environment and impact ecosystems.
When plastic bags find their way into our oceans, they leach toxins there, too. Marine life consumes these toxins, which are passed down the food chain until they reach us when we consume seafood.
Plastic Bags Harm Animals
Plastic bags are incredibly harmful to all wildlife. Both terrestrial and aquatic animals consume plastic bags, which results in an array of issues for our food chain.
Because they’re so lightweight, single-use plastic bags are often swept out of landfills and into the ocean, where they harm marine wildlife.
As mentioned, plastic bags don’t biodegrade. Instead, they break into smaller fragments that are easy for animals to consume.
Many marine animals confuse plastic bags for food, and eat them. Large endangered tortoises have been known to consume large amounts of plastic bags because they mistake them for jellyfish. In fact, an estimated 52% of the world’s sea turtles have consumed plastic debris.
When consumed, plastic bags block the animals’ digestive tract, which leads to intestinal obstruction. The animals then experience starvation and ultimately perish.
Many marine animals have also become tangled in plastic bags, which leads to lacerations, starvation, and drowning.
Land animals are also affected by plastic bag waste. In India, a significant number of cows die each year from consuming plastic bags that end up on their grazing grounds. An examination of deceased cows in India found over 50 plastic bags in each of their digestive tracts.
Plastic Bags Clog Sewers
Plastic bags also commonly end up in storm sewers, which creates clogging and problems for surrounding communities.
Runoff water often collects discarded plastic bags on the street and washes them into storm sewers. The plastic bags then clump with debris in the sewers and blocks the water flow.
This prevents runoff water from draining properly, which can cause flooding. As a result, storm sewers are closed until the water drains.
Flooded sewers can damage cars, buildings, and properties, and also means that the collected pollutants are spread far and wide throughout the streets.
This also means water flow through local watersheds is disrupted, which starves local wetlands, creeks, and streams.
Many Plastics Aren’t Recyclable, and Not All Recyclable Plastic Is Recycled
Most plastics, including plastic bags, are not biodegradable.
To prevent them from going to landfills and leaching toxins into the earth for hundreds of years, plastic bags need to be recycled.
These plastics can’t be thrown into your recycling bin at home, as they cause problems for recycling plants. Instead, they need to be sent to special plants that separate them from other plastics and recycle them properly.
Unfortunately, most plastic bags are simply dumped into the bin out of convenience, which is how they end up in landfills, oceans, and sewers.
How Many Plastic Bags are in the Ocean?
While it’s virtually impossible to say how many plastic bags are in the ocean right now, we do know that an estimated 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean alone each year.
Consider the above number multiplied by the number of years since plastic bags became the dominant shopping bag.
That’s a lot of plastic bags in the ocean.
Are Reusable Plastic Bags Better for the Environment?
Reusable plastic bags are better for the environment, but only if they’re used as intended.
Reusable bags reduce the number of single-use plastic bags, which in turn reduces the pollution caused by them.
These bags are generally tougher than single-use plastic bags, so they last much longer. When we use reusable bags, there are fewer plastic bags that need to be disposed of and therefore fewer plastic bags end up in landfills and oceans.
Reusable plastic bags are usually recyclable, which effectively extends the use of that plastic matter. This reduces the demand for new plastics and limits the number of toxins leaching into the air and waterways through plastic production.
However, because they are crafted from more durable materials, reusable plastic bags require more resources to manufacture. This leaves a larger carbon footprint up-front.
If you were to compare the environmental friendliness of a single-use plastic bag with a reusable plastic bag — if both were only used once — the single-use plastic bag would win. Crazy, right?
Reusable plastic bags are only better for the environment if you use them multiple times, as intended. The maximum environmental friendliness of reusable plastic bags is reached when they are used over and over again.
The more you use it, the lighter the footprint left behind.
In addition, it’s important to recycle the reusable plastic bag and the end of their useful life to minimise the environmental footprint as much as possible.
All of this is to say that reusable plastic bags are better for the environment, but only if they’re used multiple times as intended.
How Does Not Using Plastic Bags Help the Environment?
Using less plastic is always considered a good thing for the earth, wildlife, and the health of all humans.
Below, we look at how not using disposable plastic bags helps the environment.
Recycled Bags Reduce Toxic Waste
As we know, plastic bags are made from petroleum.
This means an array of chemicals including methanol, ethylene oxide, and sulphur oxides are spilled into the environment during manufacturing and after the bags are disposed of.
Reusable bags prevent the use and eventual disposal of these toxins and minimise the necessity for further manufacturing in the future.
Reusable Bags are Usually Made from Recyclable or Sustainable Materials
Most reusable bags are made from sustainable materials such as cotton, hemp, and bamboo.
These materials are more renewable than plastic and paper.
Cotton, hemp and bamboo even convert greenhouse gases into breathable oxygen! Plastic bags, on the other hand, actually emit carbon dioxide and reduce the levels of breathable oxygen in the atmosphere.
It’s pretty clear to see who the winner is here.
Even reusable plastic bags are preferable to single-use ones. These bags are usually made from polypropylene, which is often made from recycled plastic bottles.
The best part is that reusable plastic bags can be recycled again at the end of their useful life!
Recycled Bags Reduce Litter
We’ve all seen plastic bags floating around the streets like destructive tumbleweeds.
Unfortunately, plastic bags make up a significant portion of litter. The bags are lightweight, which means they are easily carried from garbage bins or landfills into drains, streets, and oceans.
Reusable bags minimise street litter; yep, even the reusable plastic ones.
They are designed to last years without the need to repair, recycle, or throw them away. They’re also sturdier, meaning they won’t be as easily swept away.
Plastic Bag Recycling
Whether you’re looking to get rid of old disposable plastic bags or damaged reusable ones, make sure you’re recycling them properly.
It can be tempting to dump them into the bin and be done with it, but this only serves to harm the environment, animals, and humans down the line.
Soft plastics (anything you can scrunch up in your hand) cannot be put in your household recycling bin, because soft plastics tend to get caught in the machinery at the recycling plant.
However, they can be recycled at most supermarkets in Australia via the REDcycle collection bins.
REDcycle accepts soft plastics including
- Single-use plastic bags
- Damaged green bags
- Pasta and rice bags
- Lolly and biscuit packets
- Fruit and veggie bags
- Magazine and newspaper wrapping
You can visit REDcyle for the full list of recyclable items.
When plastic bags go through the REDcycle program, they are actually used to create new products like furniture, signage, and asphalt for roads!
Our Favourite Reusable Bags
There’s no denying that disposable plastic bags are incredibly harmful to the environment.
From leaching toxins into the earth and waterways to killing wildlife and clogging up sewers, plastic bags make an impact in all the worst ways.
At the end of their useful life, be sure to drop off your plastic bags at a REDcycle bin at your local supermarket. This way, you’re helping to reduce plastic waste and keep our oceans, streets, and landfills clear.
Swap out those flimsy plastic bags for sturdy, reusable ones.
Remember, reusable bags (whether they’re made from plastic, cotton, or hemp) are only better for the environment if you use them multiple times.
So, take good care of your bags and know you’re doing a good thing for the planet!
Not sure which bag to go for? Here are some of our favourite reusable bags.
The Keeper Organic & Lute Tote
Rectangle Seagrass Net Bag
Biome Organic Cotton Produce Bags
Biome Organic Cotton Canvas Tote Shopping Bag
Packit Freezable Grocery Tote
Kind Bag Reusable Bag
Explore our full range of reusable bags.