Think Green

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The environmental impact of plastic bags

Plastic bags are used by millions of people to transport their groceries and other purchases. About one million plastic bags are used every minute, accounting for a total consumption of one trillion plastic bags worldwide each year.

First introduced in the 1970s, plastic bags are a relatively young invention. Because plastic bags are relatively easy and inexpensive to produce, few people treat them with any worth, oftentimes using and discarding bags after a single usage.

Although a handy convenience item, plastic bags can be harmful to the environment in several ways. A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, and even after a bag breaks down, materials within the bag remain toxic. That's especially disconcerting considering that only a small percentage of plastic bags are recycled, while the rest end up in landfills or littering the landscape.

Plastic bags also can attract a variety of land and marine wildlife that mistake the bags for food. Bags that carry food residue can be particularly attractive. Animals that attempt to consume bags can choke on them, or the bags may become lodged in an animal's digestive system, causing a slow death from starvation or infection.

Plastic bags littered about a landscape are an eyesore. Municipalities spend millions of dollars per year to remove litter. Plastic bags are a large component of the Pacific Trash Vortex, which is a suspended area of trash trapped by currents in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine ecosystem specialists estimate the vortex to be twice the size of the state of Texas. Toxic by nature, the vortex threatens local marine and avian life.

The production of plastic bags requires millions of gallons of petroleum, but banning plastic bags altogether may not cure the problem. According to a study from the National Center for Policy Analysis, paper bags and recycled plastic bags use more energy and resources and produce more greenhouse gases than plastic grocery bags. Paper bags are energy-intensive and, unless they are made from recycled paper products, they require cutting down trees as well.

A combination of taxing plastic bag use and encouraging the use of reusable bags may be the best way to reduce reliance on single-use plastic bags.

Plastic bags may seem convenient, but the price of that convenience is costly, especially for the environment.