It’s hard to imagine everyday life today with no plastic products. Plastic has found its way into all areas of life and our modern society can no longer be imagined without it. A major obstacle is the use of single-use plastics. The most common finds during international coastal cleanups are food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws, plastic beverage bottles and other kinds of plastic bags. Plastic packaging accounts for almost half of all plastic waste worldwide, and a large part of it is disposed of within minutes of first use.
Environmental and human health impacts illustrated by the example of plastic bags
Although it is still uncertain, some studies suggest that plastic bags can take up to a thousand years to decompose. Soil and water are polluted and there is a significant risk of swallowing, suffocation and confusion for wildlife on land and in the sea. Because of their light weight and balloon-shaped construction, plastic bags are very easy to blow into the air and will eventually end up on land and in the sea.
In developing countries with poor solid waste management regulations, plastic bag litter can worsen the pandemic. By blocking sewage systems and creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other pests, plastic bags can significantly increase the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. As noted above, plastic waste and micro-plastics can get into our food chain when absorbed by fish or other marine animals. Microplastics have already appeared in table salt, tap water and bottled water. While research into the effects of microplastics has increased, very little is known about the specific effects on human health.
Possible actions to minimize plastic bags
Introduction of a plastic tax: This could trigger behaviour change in consumers and promote the use of reusable shopping bags. This concept was first introduced in Ireland in 2002. The Irish government introduced a tax on plastic bags at points of sale, known as the “PlasTax”. During the first year after the introduction of the tax, the number of plastic bags used in Ireland decreased by more than 90% and per head from 328 to 21 bags per year. The successful Irish tax on plastic bags shows that the adoption of a tax at a sufficiently high level can influence consumer behaviour.
Voluntary reduction strategies and arrangements: Strategies to reduce the use and phase-out of disposable plastics have recently been explored in a number of countries. Contrary to restrictions and taxes, the benefit of reduction strategies is that they do not try to enforce sudden changes in the market. These strategies are based on the idea that change can only be sustainable if it is voluntary and decision-based. They acknowledge the complexity of the needs associated with the use of bags and often let consumers choose. For reduction strategies to be successful, appropriate social awareness is needed. The introduction and encouragement to use reusable bags as an alternative to plastic bags is one of the many examples of a possible reduction strategy where the costumer has the choice.