What's wrong with plastic bags?
1. PLASTIC BAGS NEVER TRULY BIODEGRADE
As far as we know scientifically, plastic bags don't truly biodegrade in the environment or the landfill. Plastic bags photodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller bits of unrecoverable plastic pieces when exposed to UV light that harm wildlife and pollute our food supply. Estimations for photodegradation vary, from 500 to even 1000 years - we don't even know how long bags will be around because we've only been manufacturing plastic bags since the 1950s.
2. PLASTIC BAGS ARE MADE OF NON-RENEWABLE RESOURCES
Plastic bags are made from petroleum and are manufactured using fossil-fuel derived energy. When they’re thrown away, this means we are drilling, refining and importing oil and gas for single use items that are destined for landfills after mere minutes of use. When oil price goes down, so does the incentive to recycle and sell recycled materials, as making new plastic items can become cheaper than the cost of recycling.
3. PLASTIC BAGS ARE CONSUMED IN EXTREMELY HIGH VOLUMES
Thin film plastic carryout bags (bags less than 2.25mm – grocery bags are ~0.6mm) are consumed on a massive scale. Studies show that a plastic carryout bag is used for approximately 12 minutes and then discarded. Some are reused to line garbage bins or pick up dog poop, but the majority are tossed immediately. It is estimated that Canadians use 2.86 billion plastic bags a year, averaging 200-300 per person per year. Tied together, these 2.86 billion bags would stretch around the earth’s equator 22 times.
4. PLASTIC BAGS ARE COSTLY TO CLEAN UP
“Free” plastic bags may not cost the us at the store, but an estimate from the U.S. shows these bags go from costing stores 3-5 cents, to an estimated 17 cents per bag for cleanup costs, costing taxpayers up to 88$ per taxpayer per year. Taxpayers shoulder the burden of disposal or recycling plastic bags. Externalised costs include environmental cost of resource extraction, economic loss from littering and wildlife loss. In parts of the world, plastic bags have clogged drains and waterways and are a major cause of flooding during monsoon season. As Calgarians, we pay a significant portion of the pickup and recycling costs for plastic bags.
5. PLASTIC BAGS ARE NOT EASY TO RECYCLE
Plastic bags tend to get caught in recycling machinery because they’re light, thin and stretchy. Because of this, few recycling facilities have the capacity for recycling plastic bags at all. Calgary does, but many bags put in the blue bins aren't recycled. Additionally, recycling is costly, and the final material made from recycled bags holds little value and is difficult to sell. Because of limited capacity here in Canada, many plastics are shipped to other countries for recycling, which means their footprint only grows as we ship them around the world. Little plastic is actually recycled in Calgary, and plastic bags are divided about 50/50 between North American and Asian markets. Because of this, many plastic bags intended by consumers to be recycled wind up slated for the dump, where they contribute to overburdened landfills. Specific protocols are required for bags to be recycled, and biodegradable bags aren’t included in this – do you know how to properly recycle your bags? According to Waste Management, only 1% of all plastic bags are returned for recycling. There is no publicly available data on Calgary's plastic bag recycling.
Photo by Adam Coderre Photography