Many eco-warriors are looking for ways to ‘save the planet’, with switching away from traditional plastic bags just one step in the quest towards this.
However, plastic bags are only one part of the plastic crisis, with plastic being everywhere we look and polluting landfill, waterways and the environment. So unfortunately, banning plastic bags won’t save the planet but it will help reduce pollution.
Why Consider Stopping Your Use Of Plastic
We all know that plastic is damaging to the environment and wildlife in many ways. The fact that you’re reading this blog shows that you’re interested in finding ways to make a change in your own life or business and reducing your environmental impact and pollution contributions.
Your use of plastic – such as plastic bags at the grocery store – can leave your footprint in landfill for decades or even hundreds of years. This then results in toxic residue and micro plastics once the plastic decomposes.
This impacts soil, air, water and wildlife in the very long term, leaving a lasting ‘legacy’ of your plastic usage on the planet for future generations to solve.
What Are The Advantages Of Banning Plastics?
Of course, the biggest benefit of banning plastics and switching to plastic alternatives is reducing your environmental footprint. A typical plastic bag can take centuries to thousands of years to break down in landfill and so biodegradable or compostable plastic reduces this time vastly.
Reusable items also reduce this time if you use them for a very long term or even upcycle into something else! Think fabric bags, recycled plastic bags, crocheted bags etc. These are great alternatives to carry your shopping in. Many shops also sell these cotton style bags at the counter at a low cost.
Unfortunately, traditional plastic is everywhere we look, from toys and food packaging to building materials, toiletry packaging and soft drink bottles. However, awareness is increasing of the negative impact plastic has on the environment due to its toxic makeup and the time it takes to break down.
How Long Does Plastic Take To Decompose?
Plastic can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose or break down in any environment, including landfill. When plastic decomposes, it breaks down into small pieces that may not be visible to the naked eye, however, these small pieces of plastic will never fully decompose and will potentially contaminate water, soil and air.
This is damaging in many ways:
- Wildlife may ingest small pieces of plastic and either choke or become ill
- Wildlife may become entangled in items such as canned drink connectors, plastic bags, string etc and either be fatally wounded or injured
- Marinelife can ingest microplastics and become toxic – resulting in their own death or translation to human illness when eating animals such as fish
- Contaminating the social with toxic residue
- Contaminating the water nearby with toxic residue
- Both of the above can lead to illness in wildlife or humans or damage growth of trees or plants.
What Is Plastic Made Of?
Traditional plastic – the type we see everyday in single-use plastic bags, soft drink bottles, shampoo bottles, trash bags and takeaway containers – has been around since 1907. However, awareness is rising of the negative contribution of plastic to the environment and landfill so people are wanting to find out more about plastic.
Plastic is made from materials such as crude oil, gas, coal, cellulose and salt which are seen as natural materials or resources. These also are becoming less and less available and cannot be recreated once they’re depleted. They are definitely not renewable materials.
The materials undergo a refining process which essentially is then treated by heat and ‘cracked’ before being combined with other materials to create different plastic types to turn into plastics you can use. This is how plastic is turned into so many shapes and uses.
‘Cracking’ is the degradation of the materials by heating without oxygen – this is the main process breaking down the complex carbons into smaller ‘pieces’ creating the new chemicals for end result.
Unfortunately, because crude oil and natural gas are the main ingredients, this makes the plastic in many cases toxic either to people, animals or the environment when breaking down. Manufacturing products from materials such as crude oil is also bad for the environment, releasing carbon dioxide into the air, and oil itself being toxic to animals and the environment on many levels.
Manufacturing plastic also uses high amounts of electricity and water.
What Is The Lifecycle Of Plastic?
Plastic doesn’t ever completely break down, ending up in small particles after decades to centuries in the soil, water or air. With countries producing literally millions of tonnes of plastic a year, what is the lifecycle of traditional plastic?
In some ways, the lifecycle of plastics is really never ending as it doesn’t ever completely decompose. It’s also important to understand that different plastics and products breakdown at different rates. The lifecycle of standard plastic items is as follows:
- Manufacturing process – gathering materials, combining and creating the basic plastic.
- Production process – molding, adding dyes or additives, changing to heat resistant or bacteria resistant.
- Plastic usage – how we use it i.e. toys, water bottles, packaging.
- Some plastics can be recycled or reused – think water bottles that can be recycled, reusable water bottles.
- Non-recycled plastic ends up in landfills or the natural environment – around 90 per cent or more of all plastics end up like this.
- Plastic takes up to centuries to break down into small particles that will never disappear.
Why Does Plastic Take A Long Time To Decompose?
Why is plastic so hard to decompose? This really comes down to how plastic is manufactured and the materials it contains. Think about the usage of most plastics – they’re meant to be strong, resilient and last for a while. So then it makes sense that they won’t break down easily.
Most plastics are made of polyethylene terephthalate or PET, which is virtually indestructible as bacteria can’t break them down. For materials to be able to break down or decompose, typically they need to contain organic or raw compounds that can be broken down by microbes or UV light. Nature needs to recognize them!
Unfortunately, nature does NOT recognize plastic – which should be our first clue around why plastic is so bad for the environment when disposed of. Items such as compostable plastic however, are made from renewable sources and break down completely in the right environment.
Plastic made from petroleum which is the end product of millions of years of once-living organisms decaying, has a manufacturing process which completely changes this material so that it can no longer be broken down.
Plastics made from propylene (most plastics) are unable to be broken down because they are heated which makes the individual chemical components link together, forming extremely strong carbon-carbon bonds with each other. Nature doesn’t understand this and so it cannot be broken down.
Can I Switch To Alternative Plastics?
Of course you can switch to alternatives! Biobased plastics such as compostable and biodegradable provide a great alternative to plastic in many cases. Compostable plastic is made from completely renewable resources, meaning they can completely break down into natural matter in a composter or worm farm.
Biodegradable plastic can break down rapidly in landfill thanks to specially designed microbes and some renewable make up. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastic does leave behind some trace toxic residue as it does contain some elements of plastic.
But overall, choosing to use such alternatives will result in:
- Reduced contributions to landfill
- No leaching or leaving behind toxic chemicals
- Less greenhouse gas emissions during manufacturing
- Lower water and energy consumption during manufacturing
- Safer for humans, animals, wildlife and the environment
- Great fertilizer when composted correctly.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Banning Plastics?
We’d all love to say – ban plastic – and see our pollution issues over, However, banning plastic isn’t possible because it’s literally used in so many different areas of life. Too many actually! It would take many decades or centuries to replace plastic with viable alternatives.
Whilst governments are able to ban plastics such as single-use (straws, cutlery, containers), it’s not possible right now for other plastic uses. Other countries have introduced plastic bag taxes and banned single-use plastic bags in favor of compostable or reusable which is also a start.
Other disadvantages include:
- People will switch to alternatives that aren’t any better – for example, paper bags use large amounts of trees and energy to produce as a plastic alternative.
- Plastics aren’t the biggest issue with pollution – solvents and cleaning chemicals also pose a great risk to the ocean and environment.
- Switching from plastics may encourage people to be less eco-minded in other choices. For example, they have recycled or used compostable plastics so don’t consider which cleaning chemicals or how much meat they purchase.
- Weaker or less resilient alternatives in important items – compostable and biodegradable are often a bit weaker, with bags ripping easier or not holding liquid. For important items such as packaging, medical supplies or implants, this could pose an issue.
Can Plastic Be Banned Forever, Completely?
Unfortunately at this point, banning plastic completely isn’t possible. Until there are alternatives for everything from building supplies and medical implants to water bottles and toys, it’s not possible to ban plastic in its entirety.
It will also take a long time to replace everything with alternatives. While there are many options around the world such as bamboo, glass, metal, fabric, compostable and biodegradable, there is still a long way to go to replace everything.
Unfortunately, the world got so reliant on plastic, alternatives weren’t considered on many items.
I’m sure we’d all love to ‘save the planet’ by banning plastic bags, however, they are just one part of the issue. Of course, limiting or stopping our usage of such bags will go a long way to reducing this issue, there are still many steps to take.
Plastic is everywhere we look and polluting landfill, waterways and the environment. So unfortunately, banning plastic bags won’t save the planet but it will help reduce pollution. We can all start now by making small steps to reduce our plastic usage.