Almost everybody has a “bag of many bags” at home, where all the plastic bags from stores and supermarkets end up. They are usually kept to be utilized again, but even though reusing is a great way to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment, it cannot decrease plastic production and use on its own. The evidence is clear – many streets are festered with plastic waste and landfills are getting fuller by the day. Even though if we are trying to reuse as much as possible, the bag of many bags keeps getting new members. The burning issue of plastic pollution had caused a surge of prohibitions and legislations in many world cities during the last decade (especially regarding plastic bags and straws), showing eagerness of many citizens to reduce the amount of plastic waste they generate and clean up the environment.
Plastic bags are cheap, convenient and easy to make, so they were commonly given for free by many retailers. However, this situation has started to change in the last couple of years. Many fashion and supermarket retailers today are expected to charge their customers for every plastic bag they hand out or provide a biodegradable alternative. This practice proved to be very effective in terms of reducing plastic consumption. California was the first American state to enact legislation that imposed a ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores in 2014. One year after the implementation, the City of San Jose reported that storm drain systems were 89% cleaner, while the city streets and creeks were 60% cleaner. In England, the sales of plastic bags by the seven biggest supermarket chains have plummeted since the authorities imposed a charge on all plastic bags in 2015. Earlier this year, the City of New York has decided to take an even more radical measure – all plastic carry-out bags are going to be banned from distribution starting March the 1st, 2020.
Depending on the city, the production of a standard plastic grocery bag costs about 1 cent. Even though it’s true, this fact is misleading, as it doesn’t include a very important expense – waste management. Convenience and low production costs made the use of plastic bags look like a cheap and effective solution, but it actually came at a far greater price. To find the true price of a plastic bag, we need to look into two important components of plastic production and use – financial and environmental perspective.
When we think about the price of a plastic bag, we usually consider only production and distribution expenses, while we overlook the price of waste management. While the price of a plastic bag may be about 1 cent on the market, its management and disposal can be 10-20 times more expensive. Expenses for waste management include collecting and disposing of bags, removing them from the streets, processing in landfills and decontaminating recycling streams. For example, in 2004, the City of San Francisco estimated that waste management expenses for a single plastic bag add up to 17 cents. The total cost of litter collection and disposal in the US is estimated to be at least 11.5 billion dollars annually. Businesses are covering about 80% of the cost, but the rest is paid by taxpayers’ money. Instead of being used for building new schools, hospitals, libraries and parks, these billions of dollars are given each year for litter abatement.
All these financial efforts are still not enough to prevent considerable amounts of plastics from entering the oceans each year and to also clean up the existing pollution.
More than 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. Significant part of that waste includes plastic bags and single-use plastic packaging. Take a walk on any beach in the world and you will witness the effects of this pollution – plastic flotsam and jetsam are floating on the ocean’s surface and washing up on all world beaches. Besides being an ugly view, these plastic items are threatening both marine and terrestrial life.
We have seen countless pictures of birds, fish and other marine creatures with their bellies full of nurdles, turtles choking on plastic bags, storks trapped in plastic fibers. All these larger chunks of plastic are falling apart with time, becoming tiny, microscopic particles that we usually refer to as microplastics. These particles are invisible to the naked eye, just like pollution in the air we breathe. And just like we breathe polluted air, marine creatures breathe polluted water. Even the species that are not directly ingesting plastic are nevertheless plagued with it by feeding on fish and other species that ingest it regularly, and by living in waters that contain microplastics. This includes humans too.
Considering that seafood is an important part of the diet in many world countries and that global demand for it is increasing every year, it is obvious that humanity is also increasingly ingesting microplastics. All species of life, every drop of water and every stone on this planet are connected. If we look deeply into how life works, it will become apparent that everything happens in cycles. It is not hard to see how every plastic bag, straw, fiber or any other plastic item that we have thrown into our environment is going to return back to us – but this time we will carry it in our bodies, not in our hands. Plastic is not only polluting our beautiful home; it is also threatening our health and food sources.
Looking the problem from all sides and taking all this information into account, it becomes clear that a plastic bag costs far more than a penny or twenty cents. While the cost of production and management is easy to calculate, it is quite impossible to estimate the total cost. Can we put a price tag on an entire ecosystem? Or on our health? Can we put a price tag on the future of our children? The answer to all these questions is quite obviously – no.