Well over a billion single-use plastic bags are given out for free each day. But as the old adage says, nothing comes for free. Here are some facts to illustrate the actual costs paid by our environment and society for the fleeting convenience of unlimited, free, single-use plastic bags. To see the real costs, we must look at the "cradle to grave" multiple impacts and the effects of each phase of a bag's life.
Phase 1: Production Costs
The production of plastic bags requires petroleum and often natural gas, both non-renewable resources that increase our dependency on foreign suppliers. Additionally, prospecting and drilling for these resources contributes to the destruction of fragile habitats and ecosystems around the world. The toxic chemical ingredients needed to make plastic produces pollution during the manufacturing process. The energy needed to manufacture and transport disposable bags eats up more resources and creates global warming emissions.
Phase 2: Consumption Costs
Annual cost to US retailers alone is estimated at $4 billion. When retailers give away free bags, their costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.
Phase 3: Disposal and Litter Costs
Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food. Turtles think the bags are jellyfish, their primary food source. Once swallowed, plastic bags choke animals or block their intestines, leading to an agonizing death.
On land, many cows, goats and other animals suffer a similar fate to marine life when they accidentally ingest plastic bags while foraging for food. In a landfill, plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to degrade. As litter, they breakdown into tiny bits, contaminating our soil and water. When plastic bags breakdown, small plastic particles can pose threats to marine life and contaminate the food web. A 2001 paper by Japanese researchers reported that plastic debris acts like a sponge for toxic chemicals, soaking up a million fold greater concentration of such deadly compounds as PCBs and DDE (a breakdown product of the notorious insecticide DDT), than the surrounding seawater. These turn into toxic gut bombs for marine animals which frequently mistake these bits for food.
Collection, hauling and disposal of plastic bag waste create an additional environmental impact. An estimated 8 billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps and sacks enter the waste stream every year in the US alone, putting an unnecessary burden on our diminishing landfill space and causing air pollution if incinerated. Recycling requires energy for the collection, processing, etc. and doesn't address the above issues.
Introduced just over 25 years ago, the ugly truth about our plastic bag addiction is that society's consumption rate is now estimated at well over 500,000,000,000 (that's 500 billion) plastic bags annually, or almost 1 million per minute.