Paper or Plastic?

Written by: Matthew Quraishi-Landes

On April 20, 2018, two days before Earth Day, countries convened in New York to explore possible solutions to this year’s Earth Day theme: “Kicking the Plastic Bag Addiction: A Plan for Response to Plastic Pollution”. Among nations present were France, Mexico, Rwanda, Morocco, and other European Union nations who presented possible strategies of how to eliminate or reduce plastic bags. Plastic bags are a growing concern to the environment, from the insufficient way that they are used to their lack of proper disposal.   

In the past decade, more plastic has been produced than the entire last century combined. Nearly 4-5 trillion plastic bags are consumed annually around the globe, yet only 1 out of 200 bags are recycled.The consequences of this proliferation are dire.  Over half of endangered species have been entangled in or ingested plastic waste. When marine species mistake plastic bags for food and eat them, toxic chemicals are then passed through the food chain and eventually reach our dinner plates.  

Just last week 80 plastic bags were removed from the ocean off the shores of Thailand and Malaysia – by a pilot whale.  The plastic bags found in the whale’s intestine took its life despite efforts from local officials. Similarly last month, a 33 ft. sperm whale near Spain died from ingesting over 60 pounds of garbage. If this trend continues, it won’t be long until there is more plastic than marine life in the oceans.

Beyond environmental concerns, plastic bag usage has hidden economic costs. Governments spend millions of dollars to remove plastic waste from beaches, streets, and public parks. Australia is expected to spend $4 million annually to clean up plastic bags. Recycling is expensive, too. One ton of plastic bags costs $3200 to recycle, but only produces $400 worth of reusable products.

Countries have started to adopt new policies to reduce plastic bag usage and have already begun seeing results. The UK noticed a 40% reduction in the number of plastic bags over ten years since introducing a 5 pence tax on plastic bags. This strategy of applying a tax to the use of plastic bags has also worked in cities across the U.S. and even extended to a statewide ban in both California and Hawaii. Unfortunately, other states are not following suit: Michigan, Idaho, Arizona, and Missouri have enacted laws prohibiting bans against plastic bags.  

Outside the United States, other nations are coming together to shed light on the importance of the plastic bag epidemic.  France banned plastic bags in 2016 and is looking to extend that to plastic plates and utensils by 2020.  Rwanda has banned plastic bags since 2008, and rulebreakers may even face jail time if caught.  Morocco banned plastic bags as of 2016 with fines up to $100,000 USD.  The success of Morocco is particularly stark. Morocco was the second largest consumer of plastic bags, but since 2016 has changed course by looking for alternative solutions.    

Earth Day is approaching its 50th anniversary in 2020. This year’s focus on eliminating plastic bag use has the potential to make a serious impact on plastic pollution worldwide. Nevertheless, with 7.6 billion people in the world, it will ultimately come down to people changing their attitude and behavior towards the environment. For many people, they only interact with plastic bags when they buy something. People expect to receive a plastic (or paper) bag to carry everything out of the store. For plastic bag use to decline, governments can only do so much. Individuals and businesses must change their attitude toward the product. Shoppers can decline bags for single-item purchases, bring their own reusable bags, or improve their recycling habits. Businesses can switch to paper or cloth bags, offer rewards for customers using their own bags, or eliminate bags entirely. World leaders need to ensure the influence of 2018’s Earth Day and kick the plastic bag addiction, otherwise these negative consequences will only get worse.