Ours is the age of plastics. Its most visible manifestation are the ubiquitous plastic bags, which are everywhere. At the grocery store, in the landfills, washing into rivers and streams and eventually into the oceans. We are just becoming aware of the damage done to the environment and to animal life around the world by plastics pollution. Fortunately, by taking small steps like replacing plastic bags with reusable grocery bags, we can all make a difference. Consumers and retailers alike are discovering the benefits of reusable bags, and slowly making the shift.
An ocean of pollution
One of the biggest problems with disposing of used plastic is that it lasts for a very long time. It can take anywhere from 15 to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to biodegrade. This means that they have years to contribute to the pollution of the planet, endangering birds and animal life. As much as 10% of the debris that washes up on coastlines across the U.S. consists of plastic bags.
One of the biggest problems with plastic pollution is that it finds its way into water bodies, where birds and animals confuse it with the food that it resembles, like jellyfish and plankton. Seabirds, turtles and fish all ingest plastic with deadly results. As many as a million birds, 100,000 turtles and millions of other sea animals die each year from ingested plastics.
Cutting down on plastics
The development of biodegradable plastics would go some way towards solving this problems, but it is is still years away. For now, the responsible choice for customers and retailers is to begin using recycled bags, especially for groceries. Plastic bags, when they are used, should be recycled. At present, only about 2% of all used plastic bags are recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Plastic bags are used on average for only 25 minutes, and just once across their lifetimes. In the U.S. alone, 100 billion plastic bags are used every year. The average person uses 350 to 500 plastic bags each year. Given these stunning statistics, the benefits of reusable bags are clear: they can help to reduce the problem of future plastic pollution while we develop solutions to clean up the existing mess.
There is a choice
Simple steps like replacing plastic bag use with reusable grocery bags can make a difference. On average, a reusable bag is used 700 times more in its lifetime than a disposable plastic bag. Just one person using reusable bags instead of plastic grocery bags would reduce the number of plastic bags by 22,000 over a lifetime.
Among other benefits of reusable bags, they can be designed to serve many different purposes, from grocery bags to wine totes and trick or treat bags. Retailers can print logos and messages on them, making them walking advertisements for their products and ethical standards.
As consumers and retailers alike discover the benefits of reusable bags, we are seeing a slow but steady shift in the popular consciousness. Most people would choose the alternative to plastic if it was easily available. Many stores already display reusable bags at the checkout, for an easy transition that will have a real impact on the environment.