Plastic Bags, Their Importance, Production, and Environmental Issues
The problems of global warming and the preservation of the environment are the main key issues that disturb ecologists all over the world. On the assumption of their views on the ablation and environmental depletion, governments of different countries make their steps to this problem solution. However, the benefits of the assumed measures are rather questionable.
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For instance, in such countries like Italy, Ireland, China, or South Africa, there exist many legislative acts prohibiting or limiting the use of plastic bags. Nevertheless, taking into consideration the results of the latest ecological researches in this sphere, such kind of solution may seem rather ambiguous. Many ecologists state that on a closer view an ecological impact of plastic bags is much lower than this figure of paper bags (Equinox Center 8).
At the same time over the last years, the major focus of efforts in the field of environmental protection is concentrated on a limitation of the use of plastic bags. There is a widely spread opinion that plastic bags are the main source of environmental contamination. During a process of their production, a huge amount of repugnant substances are evolved. Moreover, in the natural environment process of plastic bags decomposition are very slow and their utilization causes irreparable environmental damage.
Apart from their slow decomposition, plastic bags have many other disadvantages. For instance, the production of plastic bags is very energy-consuming, they cause pollution to marine life and they are the main source of waste deposits. At the same time, there is a tendency to exaggerate the effect produced by plastic bags on the environment in comparison with paper bags. To investigate all the benefits and disadvantages of these types of bags in the ecological aspect and to find out the least harmful material, it is necessary to research all the processes of their production and utilization.
The main claim of the current paper is all about a true worth of a plastic bag as one of the most frequently used types of goods’ containers and transportation means, it’s recycling, decomposition, and reusability processes, and the effects on the environment and economics. Though plastic bags are frequently banned nowadays, their effects on people and the environment are less harmful than one of the paper bags, this is why it is necessary to develop some new approaches to plastic bags’ production and utilization and provide people with clear instructions on how to benefit from plastic bags making less harm to nature.
The historical overview of the use of plastic bags shows that people have been utilizing plastic products for a long period regularly. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine everyday life and shopping without plastic bags. People just cannot stop using it or replace it with a better alternative. Though paper bags have been also implemented, their price and even quality are not that appropriate for ordinary people as those of plastic bags.
Even though plastic bags may be harmful to human lives and that the governments around the whole globe have already taken several plastic bag bans, people continue using them. “Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic shopping bags each year… only about 13 percent are recycled” (EcoWatch para.6). People have to think where the rest of the bags are and understand that this part of plastic continues making harm to nature.
This is why the attention to such simple facts could prove that the problem does exist, and it is not enough and even impossible just to prohibit the use of plastic bags. People have to realize that certain economic changes can be observed as soon as the problem may be solved. Anyway, to comprehend how the history of plastic bags and its current environmental impact are connected, the analysis of all plastic bags’ aspects and their possible alternatives should be organized.
Most plastic bags are made from “ethylene, a gas that is produced as a by-product of oil, gas, and coal production” (Cogte 363). In daily use, it is possible to distinguish two major types of bags made from plastic. They are over subtle bags, which are used mainly in the food industry and supermarkets, and heavier plastic bags, which may be found in retail shops. These two types of bags vary in density.
It is possible to differentiate between high-density polyethylene (HDPE) which is inflexible and inextensible, and low-density polyethylene, which is transparent and sleek (Karli and Grant 3). The typical example of a plastic bag made from high-density polyethylene is a t-shirt bag. Plastic bags made from low-density polyethylene are mainly used as shopping bags. From their ecological impact, it is necessary to mention that bags made from low-density polyethylene cannot be recycled, unlike those made from HDPE.
The production of plastic bags is the prevailing branch in the plastic industry. It has been calculated that more than one trillion plastic bags are used annually all over the world (Green and DeMeo 32). More than half of these bags are made from low-density polyethylene.
Having been implemented not so long ago, plastic bags have become ingrained in our everyday life. Due to its flexibility to different demands, plastic may be met practically in every sphere of human activity. Nowadays more than 80% of all bags are made from this material. Apart from its obvious ecological dangers, plastic has many benefits from the economic point of view. This material is very cheap in production and very convenient in use. Plastic bags are firm, impermeable to water, and light. Despite its dangers for ecology, many economists state that it will be practically impossible to replace plastic bags with any other alternative variant.
Nevertheless, this convenience of a plastic bag to which we have become accustomed comes at a high cost to nature. Plastic bags are the reasons for many ecological problems. According to statistic data, the amount of plastic bags increases from year to year. The majority of plastic bags are not recycled but thrown directly to landfill sites. They are strewed in forests, on beaches, along roads and practically everywhere. Because of their lightweight, they easily go aloft, stick in branches of trees, hang on fences, and float in water plugging up discharge channels.
In general, plastic bags are produced from irreplaceable natural recourses such as oil and gas (Edwards and Fry 27). In such a way, their production leads to the depletion of natural resources and damages the environment due to the processes of these resources extraction.
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The main argument, which is always used against plastic bags, is a long half-life period or polyethylene. The fact that this material is practically indecomposable means that those plastic bags that are thrown nowadays will exist for more than one hundred years. Numerous plastic bags may be found in water causing in such way damage to marine flora and fauna. Many sea animals and birds mistakenly engulf plastic, tangle, and suffocate in swimming bags. For instance, ecologists state that there are many cases when turtles mistakenly put floating plastic garbage for nettle fishes and swallow them. It has been calculated that more than one million oceanic mammals die every year because of the plastic rubbish. In some places of the Pacific Ocean, plastic garbage is more numerous than plankton.
Terrestrial animals also suffer from plastic bags. Many wild animals in search of food swallow plastic bags and die of asphyxia because this material cannot be digested. “Plastic bags kill about 100,000 whales, seals, turtles, and other marine animals each year worldwide» (Cogte 366). Plastic bags are the main products of human activity, which may be observed in the ocean.
As it has been said before, the main problem of plastic bags is the fact that they practically do not disintegrate in the environment. Due to this property of plastic bags, they are viewed as mass killers of wildlife. After the death of an animal that has mistakenly swallowed a plastic bag the processes of dissolution of this animal are rather fast. On the contrary, the plastic bag, which has caused the death of this animal, remains practically intact. In such a way, another animal may swallow it and this process may be infinite.
Even though the process of the production of plastic is comparatively cheap, the widespread use of this material comes at a high cost from their utilization. The problem is emphasized by the fact that many waste reduction facilities unwillingly accept plastic bags for recycling because plastic is not very valuable in the quality of a definable raw material.
The governments of many countries have comprehended the dangers connected with the use of plastic bags and in the present moment, they try to reduce their production. In some countries, there is a tendency for the prohibition of plastic bags, while several countries have imposed a special tax to limit their usage.
In Bangladesh, the use of plastic bags has been inhibited since 2002. It was discovered that plastic bags had been the main reason for the waterflood, which had taken place in 1998 when two-thirds of the country had been covered with water. This water-flood was caused by plastic bags, which plugged up a drain system.
In 2001, the authorities of Bombay also have omitted the usage of plastic bags. As a result, all shops in the country have crossed over to paper bags. Due to these measures, the quantity of waste in the city has reduced to a great extent.
In Ireland, there has been imposed the tax aiming to reduce the use of plastic bags. As a matter, every plastic bag has increased the cost of a good on 15 cents. After the imposition of this tax, the amount of plastic garbage has reduced.
Plastic bags are completely prohibited in Italy. At the present moment, customers have to use bags made from other materials.
In China, plastic bags are also known as white pollution due to their lightweight and the ability to blow. In South Africa, plastic bags lying down the streets are so numerous that they are humorously called national flowers.
The implementation of the tax on the use of plastic bags in Ireland has greatly reduced their usage. All the money obtained from the implementation of this tax is intended to provide new environmental programs.
At the same time, despite all the disadvantages of plastic bags, the use of paper bags, which seems to be the best alternative variant, is also very harmful to the environment. According to the opinions of the majority of researchers, the right choice between paper and plastic bags is plastic (Bell and Cave 7). The effects of the environmental pollution caused by plastic are obvious and visual. At the same time, the detailed investigation of the processes of the production and utilization of paper bags suggests that plastic is less harmful to the environment (Chaffee, Chet, and Yaros 55).
The production of paper bags is rather a complex and expensive process. First logs have to be delivered from a forest to a wood-processing factory. It takes approximately three years for the logs to dry before they can be used in paper manufacturing. Then the logs are cut into pieces and exposed to a high temperature. It is understood that this process leads to greenhouse gas emissions. After that, the logs are digested with carbonate of lime and sulfurous acid to obtain a paper grade pulp (Dunn par.4). The paper grade pulp has to be washed. This process requires a huge amount of water and bleaching agents. On the final stage, the paper is cut, packaged, and printed.
In comparison with paper manufacturing, the process of the production of plastic bags is not so complicated. A special machine heats plastic grains to the needed temperature and impastes them (turn separate plastic grains into an indiscrete mass). This indiscrete mass of plastic moves through a long and thin tube and is cut at regular intervals. This process is rather fast and cheap in comparison with paper manufacturing. Moreover, the production of paper bags demands additional costs connected with the transportation of logs and final products. “It would take approximately seven lorries to transport the same number of paper bags as can be transported by a single lorry full of plastic bags” (Bell, Kirsty, and Cave 2).
It has been also calculated that “it takes 1/8 of the material to make a plastic bag as it does to make a paper bag” (Cogte 370). Moreover, the production of paper leads to deforestation, which in turn generates a negative impact on the atmosphere. In comparison with paper bags, the production of plastic bags “consumes 40 percent less energy, generates 80 percent less solid waste and produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions”(Cogte 371).
In comparison with the plastic industry, paper manufacturing causes much more damages to the environment. However, the production of both types of bags is very harmful to the atmosphere. “Plastic bags generate 39 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than paper bags” (“The Plastic Bag – VS – Paper Bag Facts” par.1).
All the processes of the paper manufacturing and the use of the toxic chemical in the production leads to acid rains and water pollution. The consumption of water in the plastic industry is much lower in comparison with paper manufacturing. For instance, “for the production of 1000 paper bags, it is needed 1004 gallons of water, while to produce 1500 plastic bags only 58 gallons of water is needed” (“The Plastic Bag – VS – Paper Bag Facts” par.2). “Paper bags generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags” (“Paper or Plastic?” par.4)
In such a way, the use of paper bags seems to make more harm to nature.
The recycling processes of both materials are rather complex and harmful. During the recycling of paper to obtain paper grade pulp, many harmful chemicals are used to dissolve the fibers. Even though there are more opportunities for recycling of paper in comparison with plastic, practically every new paper bag is made of virgin raw materials to obtain better strength and resilience. Those bags, which are recycled, are used mainly for the production of the goffered board and are rarely used for new paper bags.
At the same time, it must be admitted that the process of recycling plastic bags is also very expensive. The main aim of recycling is to reduce the generation of solid effluences. On the initial stage, the bag should be separated by the material it made from. Each type of plastic requires special technology of its recycling. Regardless of its type, any plastic bag should be re-melted. As a rule, the process of the recycling of plastic bags is much more expensive than their production. In such a way, the majority of plastic bags, even those that are made from high-density polyethylene, are never recycled. As a rule, they just shipped to the third world countries where the existing environmental laws are not so strict. In the best case, these plastic bags are burned, but in the majority of cases, they are thrown directly to landfill sites.
Moreover, contrary to the common belief that the process of decomposition of paper is very fast, several studies claim the opposite. Due to a lack of such important elements as water, light, and oxygen in landfill sites, the process of the dissolving of any material is rather slow (Bell, Kirsty, and Cave 41). It is also necessary to mention that a paper bag demands more space in waste landfill as it is larger in volume in comparison with a plastic bag.
At the same time, the period of decomposition of plastic is very long. According to different data, it may take from 400 to 1000 years for complete decomposition of the plastic. As a possible solution to this problem, there have recently been introduced plastic bags, which are made from degradable polyethylene. These plastic bags degrade in a course of time or under specific circumstances. It is possible to distinguish between bio-degradable plastic, which is low in oil-based material and photodegradable plastic, which degrades under the influence of sunlight (Bell, and Cave 2).
It is also should be mentioned that the reusability of plastic bags is higher as compared with paper bags. Plastic bags are rather thin and strong enough at the same time. They are compact and convenient. In such countries as Denmark or Italy after the introduction of the tax aiming to reduce the amount of plastic bags, customers begin to reuse them. The durability of plastic permits its usage in different spheres of human activity. The same cannot be said for paper bags. Apart from their expensiveness, paper bags are designed for single use.
The evaluation of the economic factors helps to comprehend better the true worth of plastic bags, their impact on people, and the financial aspect of the problem. Plastic bag bans may touch upon several groups of people: retailers, consumers, manufacturers, and city representatives. Taking into consideration the fact that many merchants offer plastic bags for free along with a purchase, it is possible to think that a plastic bag ban could help to save money.
However, it is also necessary to remember that plastic bags have to be replaced with something. Usually, plastic bags are changed for paper bags as they are compact and not heavy. Still, paper bags are more expensive. This is why a retailer has to spend not 1 cent per bag as it was with a plastic bag but about 25 cents. Anyway, “these costs should be mitigated over time as consumers transition to reusable bags” (Equinox Center 4). The second group of people is consumers. In case a plastic bag ban comes to force around the globe, customers start using some reusable bags and overcome high fees of paper bags. At the same time, the quality of reusable bags may be decreased with time.
This is why it is a questionable issue whether it is safe to reuse containers and bags all the time. In their turn, plastic manufactures may undergo considerable losses due to the necessity to change the nature of the industry. People may lose their jobs, innovations have to be implemented, and new directions need to be offered. On the one hand, it seems to be a too expensive and long process. On the other hand, it is over one day, and the previous conditions just with some new products would take place. Finally, cities may save about $160,000 per year (spent on cleaning up plastic garbage), but they have to think about the costs associated with new means of cleaning.
As may be seen from this brief evaluation of the economic factors of a plastic bag ban, there are certain positive and negative aspects. If the environmental aspect is more or less definite, the economic aspect of the problem is not clear. It is wrong to believe that the substitution of plastic bags with paper bags leads to some positive improvements only. Considerable costs and losses have to be expected.
In a way of conclusion, it is possible to say that two types of bags are harmful to the environment. At the same time, the economic benefits and the conveniences of plastic bags are too significant to ignore.
Both types of bags are optimized for a single-use. The production of plastic bags, as well as paper bags, contaminates the environment. The main resource needed for the production of plastic bags is oil, which is an irreplaceable natural resource. This fact is one of the main arguments of the advocates of paper bags. At the same time, paper bags are made from wood. In such a way the more paper bags are produced the fewer trees will remain untouched.
Apart from the direct economic influence on the environment, such as deforestation and the greenhouse effect, forest clearance has its implicit threats. A process of transportation of woods to a factory and then of finished products to shops suggests the use of ships, trucks and different kind of vehicles which in its turn pollute the environment. Plastic bags are much more compact in this respect and due to this fact, the process of their transportation is easier and less damaging.
It must be admitted that the damages to the environment caused by plastic are obvious. Plastic garbage may be found everywhere. The damages to the environment produced by paper bags are not so obvious and they demand a more sophisticated treatment, which enables them to see that plastic is less harmful to the environment than paper is. The production of plastic bags as well as its recycling is less expensive and damaging.
At the same time discussing the dilemma paper or plastic there may be no firm conclusion, as the damage produced by them to nature is approximately equal. Even if paper bags turn out to be less environmentally harmful, it is wrong to believe that paper bags are the only successful substitution of plastic. In addition to the fact that people have to pass through a complicated production process, paper bags need more financial changes and higher costs.
Retailers will hardly enjoy the necessity to buy more expensive bags and not to sell them but give free as an addition to purchase. At the same time, if they set higher prices to hide financial inconvenience, they can lose several regular customers. So, the dilemma between plastic and paper bags as well as the true worth of plastic bags in the environment can hardly be fully solved. Only personal opinions and situations can be offered to explain the necessity of plastic bag bans in society.
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