Monday, April 21, 2008

Why Are Plastic Bags Bad?

With the growing anti-plastic bag movement including bans in various Canadian towns, I have been considering what lies behind this. I know the statements that generally are part of this movement is that plastic bags are environmentally unfriendly, but rarely do I find any actual support for that beyond an outright statement. While I can understand that other than some biodegradable bags these bags do not disappear particularly quickly, at the same time plastic bags are recyclable and can be reused. The study that claimed that animals were being killed by plastic bags in the ocean has been shown to be an outright lie and has been changed to reflect that (something that is not generally ever mentioned by the way).

Paper on the other hand requires the destruction of trees, and while it can be recycled will likely get soaked with various fluids that will require it to be garbaged and thus will end up in the landfill where it will take up the supposedly unavailable landfill space as much as plastic.

So, why are plastic bags bad? I want something more than opinion, I want facts, especially with supporting scientific literature to show the evil of plastic bags.


shiddot said...


I run a site called that I use to promote the independence from disposable plastic, so I hope I can give you a few reasons as to why we shouldn't be using plastic to make things that are designed to be thrown away.

There are several different types of plastic. Only plastics of types 1, 2, and 6 are widely recycled, while types 3, 4, 5, and 7 are not. Additionally, plastic is not fully recyclable like paper or glass - it down-cycles, meaning that a plastic bottle will never again be a plastic bottle. It will become something of lesser value, like a fleece jacket. And then it will sit in landfill.

Plastic is made of chemicals derived from petroleum and natural gas, meaning it is not organic or that it has no traces of life in it; therefore it will not decompose or break down.

Additionally, plastics such as Type 3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and Type 7 have the tendency to leak out their additives, which are carcinogens, such as di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) and endocrine disruptors like biphenyl-A.

Also, because plastic is made from oil/petroleum, this further contributes to our energy dependence issues, greenhouse gas emissions, and depletion of resources. In fact, nearly 10 percent of U.S. oil consumption - approximately 2 million barrels a day - is used to make plastic.

And although some of the facts have been misrepresented, it cannot be argued that plastic pollution doesn't cause harm to birds, marine animals and sea turtles through entanglement and ingestion (see here for evidence).

In a nutshell, all the plastic that has ever been produced remains with us today, unless it has been incinerated - which emits a plethora of toxic substances into our air.

As for alternatives, certainly when it comes to replacing plastic carrier bags, there are several choices. And although paper may not be the best of all the options, it does break down naturally and safely in the environment (biodegrade), and although it's production does indeed require the destruction of trees, at least this is a renewable source. It is also much more widely recycled than plastic (although it can be argued that this process still requires the use of toxic chemicals and the related production of waste CO2). The best alternative to a disposible carrier bag is undoubtedly one made of a natural material, but perhaps most importantly, one that is designed to be reused many times before disposal is required.

In summary, it is not as much that we should be encouraging the use of plastic alternatives, but more so that we should be promoting a culture where we don't throw so much away in the first place...



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