With the rising awareness of the risk plastic poses to the environment, many are wondering what would happen if you banned plastic bags – a regular site in many dumping and landfill areas.
Unfortunately, if you banned plastic bags, you wouldn’t solve pollution problems as that’s just one of many issues in our landfill and environment areas. Plastic is not only in plastic bags but across manufacturing, toys, food and drink service and more, which means that plastic would still add a large portion to pollution just in different forms.
What Are Plastic Bags Made From?
Different plastic products are made from different types of plastic – essentially different chemical compounds. Different types of plastics are used in everyday products from medication packaging and food packaging to toys, engineering and building products.
There are seven main types of plastics, with PET being the most common. Plastic bags also fall within these types of plastic.
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) commonly used for soft drink and water bottles.
- high-density polyethylene (HDPE) commonly used for harder wearing applications like shampoo bottles.
- low-density polyethylene (LDPE) commonly used for softer applications like grocery bags and cling wrap.
- polyvinyl chloride (PVC) commonly used building construction applications like pipes.
- polypropylene (PP) commonly used for bottles, toys and car parts.
- polystyrene (PS) used for packing,
- and other resins.
Plastic bags that you would find at the grocery store, made from LDPE typically as it’s a softer material that can easily fit items such as produce inside. LDPE is extremely common around the world for this use.
Why Is Plastic Bad?
Plastic isn’t great for many reasons – in fact, it can be toxic and even fatal to wildlife while also negatively impacting the environment. Plastic bags are rising in their status as one of the worst culprits of pollution due to their contribution to not only landfill but also their risk to wildlife and the environment overall. Over the decades, humans have realized the toxicity and issues that plastic bags have for health, wildlife and environment.
Making the choice to stop using plastic bags will reduce 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. These bioplastics are rising in popularity due to them being able to break down more rapidly.
Bioplastic are essentially completely or mostly made from natural components such as corn starch, cellulose or other plant-based materials.
How Long Does It Take For Plastic To Decompose?
Unfortunately, plastic is literally everywhere and it actually takes a long time to break down. Plastic can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to actually breakdown! Traditional plastic is everywhere we look, from toys and food packaging to building materials, toiletry packaging and soft drink bottles.
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.
They are also referred to as microplastics, which is a large problem in food and particularly in the ocean.
What Type Of Plastic Takes The Longest Time To Breakdown?
Plastic breaks down at different rates based on the type, the materials it contains and its size and usage. Unfortunately, most plastics will take decades or even centuries to break down. Even then, they leave behind toxic residue and microplastics.
These then end up in the environment such as soil, wildlife or marine areas.
Here are some products and the time they can take to breakdown based on where they are disposed of, any other materials inside or on (such as dye or additives):
- Plastic bags can take around 20 years yet can be extremely harmful to wildlife including ocean life.
- Coffee cups may take around 30 years and, as you can imagine, they are widely used globally and so contribute greatly to landfill.
- Plastic straws may take up to 200 years which is why many countries are introducing legislation to get rid of plastic straws. They can also pose great risks for wildlife and ocean life.
- Plastic bottles – such as spring water or soft drinks can take up to 450 years. Think about how widely used these are and the potential global impact of these! They can often be recycled, yet many people don’t bother to recycle.
- Disposable nappies/diapers take a very long time to break down – around 500 years in many cases! They require oxygen AND sunlight to break down so don’t break down well in landfill. They can also contaminate groundwater.
- Coffee pods and toothbrushes can also take up to 500 years which is why you will see more and more options for eco-friendly coffee pods and toothbrushes (think bamboo!) on the market.
What Are Some Other Negatives About Plastic?
Some other key things to understand about how plastic impacts the environment is the manufacturing process and the toxicity in the chemical makeup:
- The manufacturing process of plastic uses high amounts of electricity and water, while releasing large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
- Plastic products have been found to be toxic to humans. This is due to the chemicals added to plastics and then absorbed by humans, such as from water or other bottles. Microplastics entering the human body through ingestion or inhalation can also be toxic.
- There have also been studies shown that certain chemicals found in plastic can leach out of the plastic and into food and beverages. This has been linked to health problems such as reduced fertility, cancers or metabolic disorders.
Of course, if you are concerned about the impact of plastic on your health, you should consult your general practitioner as they will be able to provide you with the most up-to-date and accurate health advice based on your personal situation.
Who Has Banned Plastic Bags?
With the rising awareness of the dangers of plastic, many countries have moved to ban plastic bags – single-use – and/or introduce a fee to encourage people to move to alternative options. According to a United Nations paper and several media reports, 77 countries in the world have either banned, partially banned or introduced a tax on single-use bags.
Africa is a big supporter of this ban as a developing country with a large pollution issue. Europe has 32 countries who have chosen to charge a fee to limit usage. France, Austria, Italy and Germany have banned certain types of plastic bags in favor of forced use of compostable bags which can break down into natural components when disposed of correctly.Other countries such as China, have completely outlawed any plastic other than compostable when it comes to bags. Others allow sturdier, reusable plastic bags but charge a fee.
The USA and Australia don’t have nation-wide bans or fees, however, many States have passed this legislation. India’s plans to ban plastic bags was halted due to COVID-19.
Why Can’t We Ban All Plastic Everywhere?
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.
There are some great alternatives such as biodegradable and compostable on the market to replace items such as carry bags, trash bags and pet poop bags, as well as certain food service items. There are also a great range of metal, bamboo and glass reusable items such as food containers, coffee cups and water bottles.
Plastic bags also come in fabric, recycled plastic and crochet.
What Are Plastic Bag Alternatives?
With all the negative commentary about plastic, what are the alternatives? The great news is, there are a plethora of plastic alternatives, particularly for single-use items such as bags. Of course, not all plastic products can currently be replaced, but there are great alternatives for many everyday items.
- Reusable items such as fabric, metal, glass, bamboo
If you’re looking to reduce your plastic usage, bags are a great place to start. Consider switching to reusable bags for your shopping, compostable trash bags and pet poop bags and other items such as glass water bottles, bamboo lunch boxes and metal coffee cups.
With plastic bags becoming such an issue for the environment, wildlife and marine life, it’s a great question as to whether banning them would solve the pollution issues. However, with the amount of plastic around the world other than plastic bags, the issue won’t be solved.
Of course, every little bit helps. Such as the countries introducing or currently with bag taxes or complete bans on single-use plastic bags. Making the decision to switch to plastic alternatives will also help reduce your own contributions to landfill and pollution and your overall environmental footprint.