Contributed by Megan Ray Nichols
Food is packaged. And packaged and packaged. You can buy food in a box, with a bag in the box, maybe with food items individually packaged inside that box.
To some extent, the packaging is necessary to protect the food items during transportation. But a lot of how food is packaged is for convenience, not protection. A single cucumber doesn’t need its own plastic bag, and there is no real reason to use disposable plastic bags to transport groceries from the store to your home.
In the U.S., some places have gotten rid of plastic bags, but the vast majority of people still use them. Globally, humans use as many as one trillion plastic bags each year but only recycle a measly five percent of them. If you’re one of the millions who do use them, it might be worth it to invest in some reusable bags instead.
One thing you’ve probably noticed is that you need to take your fruits and veggies out of their plastic containers if you want them to last longer. Plastic traps air inside and doesn’t allow any fresh air to get in. The result is that fresh food rots instead of ripens, so you actually lose more food! The simplest solution here is just to avoid extra plastic bags. There’s no real reason to grab a new bag for every single piece of loose produce. If you can pack it carefully and wash it before use, you can stop getting plastic bags for everything.
In addition to it making your food go bad, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t eat plastic. Unfortunately, plastic that gets thrown away breaks down into smaller particles, which can contaminate both land and soil. They make their way back up the food chain and eventually, back to humans. We don’t know what the long-term effects of it will be, but it’s a pretty safe bet that people aren’t supposed to eat plastic. And the effects — if it has any — won’t be positive.
Humans are directly linked to the environment, no matter how much we try to separate ourselves from it. Whatever harm we cause to our world also affects us, even though we may not see the impacts right away. Plastic bags are one of those things that have been slowly working their way into our lives, and not in a constructive way.
Plastic takes a long time to degrade, and plastic bags specifically can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. Animals, mainly marine life whose natural diet includes jellyfish, are prone to eat plastic bags. This causes problems because the plastic never makes its way out of the animal’s stomach, making it feel full. As a result, the animal often slowly starves to death. In other cases, plastic gets stuck in the animal’s intestines and can cause a blockage. Either way, ingesting plastic often leads to a slow, painful death.
Fixing an eternal problem
Since plastic tends to outstay its welcome, we have to find a solution. There’s a strange dichotomy here, because although the plastic bags are terrible for the environment, paper and cotton also present serious environmental problems.
That’s why a possible solution comes in an unexpected marriage of ideas. Instead of banning all plastic, some experts say it would make more sense to ban single-use plastic bags and instead, encourage people to purchase reusable plastic bags.
[Editor’s note: I have written about alternatives to plastic bags. See how many times you need to use a cloth bag to cancel the environmental costs of making it. And if you have them, use them regularly. 9/15/2022 addendum. I had to alter the previous two paragraphs because one of the author’s links died. I also see that I deleted my earlier post about alternatives, so I have substituted a later article.]
California was the first state in the U.S. to place a ban on the thin, petroleum-based, single-use plastic shopping bags that most grocery stores use. However, there is no ban on reusable plastic bags, which is the key difference. Reusable bags are, by nature, more durable and more substantial. They don’t fly away on a breeze quite as easily. They aren’t perfect since there’s still a significant carbon footprint from production and shipping, but they have a lower cost than cotton or paper.
Even if there’s a big push for reusable bags, it’s likely that not everyone will adopt it. Or, you’ll just forget to bring them with you, which frequently happens to a lot of people. Banning plastic bags is a great option, but it’s not the only one. Increasing the availability of plastic bag recycling areas is also a good idea. If only five percent are currently recycled globally, that indicates that we need plenty of places to put them. And we need to get in the habit of collecting them and taking them there.
Recycling plastic bags won’t end the problem, but when combined with a ban on single-use bags, it could make a huge impact both on people and the world we live in.
Megan Ray Nichols writes the blog Schooled by Science