Plastic bags have been around for over thirty years, and due to their cheapness, versatility, lightness and ready availability, have been adopted globally as a handy carrying bag. However this has come at a huge cost to the environment, with plastic bags adding significantly to landfill, clogging waterways and spoiling the natural beauty of the planet. Animals mistake plastic bags for food and die from starvation, entanglement or choking, with the cycle repeated again once the animal decomposes. Plastic bags do not ‘go away’, they remain ever present in our environment, taking up to 1000 years to break down, and then only into smaller, ingestible pieces.
The world has become the unwitting recipient of a slow disaster by being complacent about a too easy option for transporting our food, groceries and general shopping. But globally there is now awareness about the damage that plastic bags do to the environment – ignorance is no longer an option. Plastic bag use has to stop. And if this problem feels too hard, too entrenched, and too big to turn around, remember that it has been created over time, by individuals’ actions, so it can also be solved over time, by individual actions. One bag at a time.
Australians use 5 billion plastic bags per year, equating to over 13 million per day. In Australia 3.76 billion bags end up in our landfill sites every year and 50 – 180 million bags enter litter streams. Globally up to 1 trillion bags are used each year.
Plastic, quite simply, is not meant to end up in the ocean. It is doing irreparable harm on many levels that is both visible and unseen, occurring immediately and into the future, and will continue to do so for hundreds if not thousands of years. The long term effects of this ticking time bomb on human health, let alone for the rest of the planet, are likely to be catastrophic in terms of fertility and cancers.
Plastic bags make up a large portion of plastics in the ocean – in clean up operations, they are the fourth most common item collected.
The most visually confronting and heartbreaking impact plastics have on the environment is to marine life, such as sea birds, turtles, fish and mammals. This includes entanglement, which causes starvation, strangulation, wounding and lacerations. When plastics are ingested, animals can suffer from blockages, have difficulty in feeding and digestion, and accumulate plastic in the gut which is absorbed by body tissues and is toxic.
The next highly visible aspect of this problem is the mass of plastic accumulating at sea and being washed up on beaches, where local governments, businesses, communities and individuals are obliged to clean it up, at considerable personal and economic expense. The tourism industry is particularly affected by this, which has a flow on effect to local communities and economies. Plastic debris floating in the ocean is a cost to recreational and commercial fishing vessels, causing damage and loss of livelihood. In addition it causes damage to habitats through abrasion, scouring, smothering and ensnaring. Then there is the existence of floating garbage patches, which are visible but unseen to the majority of people, and have their own harmful impact on the environment. Then there are the unseen results of plastics in the ocean. Large pieces of plastic that are now in the ocean break down into smaller particles called microplastics. The concern here is that during this process toxic chemicals are released into the environment, but also that microplastics are now ingested by marine species, and enter the food chain, spreading the plastic. There is now not one single known waterway on the planet, including fresh water, that does not contain plastic – it is everywhere, and it is inevitably ending up on people’s dinner plates. We are literally eating our own rubbish.
Another largely unseen part of this problem is where plastics in the ocean provide floating transport for species to attach to, and are transported to habitats far away, where they upset the delicate and fragile balance of other natural ecosystems. This particular issue has long term consequences that can only begin to be imagined, and will be difficult if not impossible to reverse. Australians can think of cane toads as an example of a non-indigenous species being relocated, and the enormous harm that this has had on local environments.
One of the biggest challenges of this crisis is the lack of information, as plastics sink to the bottom of deep oceans, and the majority of marine animals that die as a result of plastic also either sink or are eaten. The documented impact of plastic debris is what washes up on beaches, and is counted in clean up campaigns. What lies at the bottom of the ocean is largely unknown and unaccounted for in statistics and data. The plastic already in the ocean, breaking up into smaller pieces, is causing long-term harm as it releases toxic chemicals as a result of additives when manufactured. These plastics are highly resistant to natural degradation and are ingested by animals, enter the food chain, and will continue to do so for decades to centuries. Even if all plastic was immediately magically stopped from entering into the ocean, which it is not, what is already there is continuing to add to this critical and unfolding disaster. And more plastic is being added, all the time.
Due to ignorance and a lack of awareness of the damage that plastics cause and the long term consequences, plastic has been mismanaged and allowed to enter ecosystems across the entire planet. The damage caused by plastics is current, increasing, largely unseen, and the long term consequences are only beginning to be understood or estimated.
What needs to be done?
On an individual level, the main offenders are plastic bags, plastic drink bottles and coffee cups. Buy reusable, long lasting products (preferably ones that can be recycled at the end of their lifetime) to replace these, and use them as much as possible, as often as possible. Get used to leaving home with your reusable shopping bags, reusable water bottle and reusable coffee cup. Become aware. Educate yourselves, your friends and your family. Watch out for news and support whoever is taking action, whether they are governments, businesses, communities or environmental organisations by signing petitions, writing letters and sharing information on social media.
On a global level, there needs to be action plans and commitment by all levels of government, researchers, policy makers, NGO’s and businesses as well as stake holders in the plastic, tourism and fishing industries. To quote David Attenborough, ‘Man-made problems need man-made solutions’ – radical creative solutions are needed to solve this complicated and entrenched disaster that humankind is now facing.
To do nothing is a crime.
Davis, M. (Director), Geffen, A. (Series Producer). (2015). David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef (Television documentary). London, UK: Atlantic Productions for the BBC.
Eerkes-Medrano, E, Thompson, R, C & Aldridge, D, C. 2015, Microplastics in freshwater systems: A review of the emerging threats, identification of knowledge gaps and prioritisation of research needs, Water Research, vol. 75, pp. 63 – 82.
Summerhayes, S 2011, Plastic in the Marine Environment, Sydney Coastal Councils Group Inc.
Thevenon, F., Carroll C., Sousa J. (editors), 2014. Plastic Debris in the Ocean: The Characterization of Marine Plastics and their Environmental Impacts, Situation Analysis Report. Gland, Switzerland:IUCN. 52 pp.