The problem of plastic bags

Plastic bags are an environmental menace from their very origins (as the finite resource of oil, the extraction and processing of which has its own problems) to the difficulties in recycling the product, “responsible” disposal in landfill and the irresponsible littering of our terrestrial environments, freshwater bodies and oceans with these eyesores. Clean Up Australia reports that “Plastic has remained the most common category of rubbish picked up on Clean Up Australia day over the last 20 years. In 2009, it made up 29% of all rubbish found. Of the plastic rubbish found, 17.6% were plastic bags with an average of 40 plastic bags being found at each Clean Up site.”

Modern life presents us with many opportunities to increase convenience, but at cost to the planet. Richer countries of the world are mostly responsible for the largest impacts, with Brits using about 300 bags a year each , Australians use 200 a year and the NRDC reports that Americans take home 1500 a year, which works out to be four a day, each. This represents a ludicrous waste of precious resources in the name of convenience or laziness by people who will probably never see the problems these unnecessary pollutants cause firsthand.

The third of July was International Bag Free Day. This initiative is something the Europeans do exceptionally well. Awareness of waste and pollution is high in Europe. The giving of free plastic bags at point of sale in supermarkets was not as culturally ingrained in some areas of the continent as it is in other parts of the world and has been banned in some countries. The environment is afforded higher status in Europe than it is elsewhere and surplus and refuse are not far from the minds of those that grew up with wartime rationing and a culture of repairing and reusing. That’s not to say that Europe doesn’t produce plastic waste – it does; and lots of it. But we still have a lot to learn from initiatives such as the Spanish creation of “International Bag Free Day” which was largely overlooked by Oceania and the Americas (although it should be noted that some areas are improving the situation, such as the City of Fremantle).

The consumers of Northern Europe have been subjected to measures to reduce plastic bag waste and programmes of plastic waste reduction have been successful. Since 2002, a plastic bag from a supermarket in Ireland has incurred a levy (originally 15 Euro cents, the tax has since increased, and will likely continue to increase, but is currently capped at 70 c). The result is a 90% decrease in the use of those bags. Perhaps more exciting is that reports of stakeholder feedback have been very positive. The reasons for this include education of the public into the problems that plastic bags cause. The Irish example shows the importance of a cultural shift as well as the introduction of legislation.

In lieu of government action to this very serious problem, we can all take immediate action to reduce the production, consumption and disposal of the unsustainable plastic carrier bag. Regular use of reusable bags (particularly ones made of natural fabrics, not plastic) is an easy and immediate mitigation measure. Avoid excessive plastic packaging on foodstuffs and keep an eye open for biodegradable alternatives. Also, when given the opportunity, do as the Irish do and spread the word about reducing plastic bag waste.



From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Asministration, USA

Photograph from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA. Plastic bags imitate food items to marine creatures, leading to massive problems associated with the ingestion of innappropriate material. For shocking examples of the consequences, see:


Bahri, G. (2005). Sustainable Management of Plastic Bag Waste. The Case of Nairobi, Kenya.

Convery, F., McDonnell, S., & Ferreira, S. (2007). The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy. Environmental and Resource Economics, 38(1), 1-11.

Davidson, J. Explanatory Memorandum to the Single Use Carrier Bag Charge (Wales) Regulations 2010.

Hawkins, G. (2001). Plastic bags Living with rubbish. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 4(1), 5-23.

Khoo, H. H., & Tan, R. B. (2010). Environmental impacts of conventional plastic and bio-based carrier bags. The international journal of life cycle assessment, 15(4), 338-345.

Poortinga, W., Whitmarsh, L., & Suffolk, C. (2013). The introduction of a single-use carrier bag charge in Wales: Attitude change and behavioural spillover effects. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 240-247.

Verghese, K., Jollands, M., & Allan, M. (2006, November). The litterability of plastic bags: key design criteria. In Fifth Australian Conference on Life Cycle Assessment (pp. 22-24).


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