While initially applauded for being more environmentally sound than its paper predecessor, the plastic bag now provides one of the biggest headaches for environmental groups.

A much-parodied scene in 1999’s Academy Award winning film American Beauty sees one of the main characters overwhelmed by the simple beauty of a plastic bag as it dances in the wind. But what of his reaction when the plastic bag is eventually washed down the drain and spat out to sea, wreaking havoc upon marine life? With baited breath we’ll have to wait for the sequel, American Beauty 2: Beauty Runs Ocean Deep.

Consumed at a rate of between 500 billion and 1 trillion worldwide each year, plastic bags are an icon of convenience culture. Enabling everything from carrying groceries, lining the bin and covering your dry cleaning, plastic bags are our most ubiquitous accessory.

As the world wrestles with itself to gain the upper hand in the manufacture of oil, it’s notable that 8 per cent of the world’s oil supply is used to make plastic. Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, which is derived from natural gas and petroleum. Only one per cent of plastic bags are recycled worldwide and the rest, when discarded, take up to 1,000 years to break down. Every year Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags – the equivalent of dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.

Paper or plastic?

Whilst 1852 saw the invention of the paper bag to transport items, it was in the 1950s that saw the introduction of plastic bags as a hygienic method of transporting one’s sandwiches. “Paper or plastic?” is a question everyone in America has been asked at least once in their lifetime by attendants standing at the end of the register packing grocery bags. But which is more environmentally sound?

As well as being more economically viable, plastic bags are much more resource-efficient than paper bags, requiring much less energy to manufacture and using one eighth of the material. Made by heating wood chips in a chemical solution under pressure, paper bags produce 70 per cent more air pollution and 50 times more water pollution than plastic bag production.

Whilst this progression from paper to plastic is notable, the environmental damage caused by plastic bags is enormous. Over 200,000 plastic bags are dumped in landfills every hour around the world, swelling landfill capacities and bringing exorbitant costs of transportation.

Plastic makes up 80 per cent of the volume of litter on roads, parks and beaches and constitutes 90 per cent of all trash floating in the world’s oceans. Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 per cent ends up in the ocean. In fact, in every square mile of ocean there are over 46,000 pieces of plastic.

The chief problem lies with the fact that plastic doesn’t biodegrade, with no natural process able to break it down. Instead, plastic fragments into smaller and smaller pieces, referred to as mermaid tears, which act as a sponge for chemicals such as PCGs and DDE.

Inevitably, more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from eating or getting entangled in plastic. After the animal dies its carcass decomposes and the plastic is free to roam the ocean and kill again. Those who do not die here enter into the food chain, often ending up passing on these chemicals to humans as a dinnertime meal.

The eighth continent

One of the more startling consequences of plastic use around the world is the huge garbage float that is gathering in the Pacific Ocean. Made up predominantly of pieces of discarded plastic, this ugly by-product of convenience culture arrives via currents from North America and Asia, with land-based sources making up 80 per cent of its volume.

First discovered in 1997 by ocean researcher Charles Moore, the Pacific Ocean Garbage Float stretches for hundreds of kilometres in the North Pacific Ocean. With the sheer variety in the size of the garbage pieces, it has been difficult for scientists to effectively measure its mass, with estimates ranging from 700,000km² to more than 15 million km².

Belching a filth of chemical toxins into the sea, this mobile trash dump is now bevy to a number of research projects aimed at reducing its colossal impact, with also some recycling programs being implemented.

The future is plastic

Here in Finland, the introduction of a 17 cent levy for each plastic or paper bag has considerably curbed their use. Other countries worldwide are also adapting this approach. The Irish Republic was the first nation to tax plastic bags in 2002 with the seven-year policy slashing use by 90 per cent and has generated more than 120 million euros in tax.

Meanwhile, the proposed introduction of similar levies in America has been met with stagnating lawsuits from plastic companies, with San Francisco and Oakland being two cities successful in their bids to ban the use of plastic bags. India, Bangladesh and Taiwan have banned plastic bags outright after ongoing problems with flooding caused by plastic bags clogging water drainage and related environmental problems.

Dubbed “the national flower” in South Africa, thin plastic bags have also been banned due to their prevalence. One group of 132 South African ladies collect about 30,000 plastic bags a month to use in weaving hats, handbags and purses for sale, donating 10 per cent of their profits to a local women’s literacy project.

Portuguese divers have found a novel way of reusing their plastic bags – assisting with the smooth application of one’s wetsuit. By initially placing a plastic bag over your foot before starting to put on the wetsuit, the amount of resistance is greatly reduced when pulling it on.

Number produced each year worldwide: 500 billion – one trillion
Number of bags recycled: 1%
Years to break down: Up to 1,000
Number of birds killed each year by plastic pollutants: 1,000,000

Whilst a company in America sells a plastic bag patch kit for holes, it is the much coveted “I’m not a plastic bag” bag that is redesigning the durability of the shopping bag. Designed by Anya Hindmarch, a British fashion designer whose offerings typically retail for several thousand dollars, the bag is emblazoned with the words in the hope of raising awareness about recycling and environmental issues. When the bag began selling in Taiwanese stores, awareness was such that riot police were called in to subdue the stampeding mass, with 30 people ending up in the hospital.

The fashion accessories do not stop there. Be seen with the Tom of Finland shopping bag, wash cocooned in the plastic bag shower curtain, or combat the abundance of precipitation in Finland this time of year with a stylish plastic bag raincoat.

As consumer consciousness broadens to include the potential repercussions of our footprints, such innovations give one pause to appreciate that we’re not handing down a world to further generations that will soon be ‘bagged and tagged.’

James O’Sullivan