Plastic shopping bags, or carrier bags or plastic grocery bags, are a common type of shopping bag in several countries. Most often these bags are intended for a single use to carry items from a store to a home: reuse for storage or trash is common. Heavier duty plastic shopping bags are suitable for multiple uses as shopping or storage bags.
Plastic shopping bags are usually made of polyethylene. This can be low-density, resin identification code 4, or most often high-density, resin identification code 2.
Although not in use today, plastic shopping bags could be made from Polylactic acid (PLA) a biodegradable polymer derived from lactic acid. This is one form of vegetable-based bioplastic. This material biodegrades quickly under composting conditions and does not leave toxic residue. However, bioplastic can have its own environmental impacts, depending on the way it is produced. Recyclability of this experimental material is unproven: resin identification code 7 is applicable.
Bags made of biodegradable polythene film, which decompose when exposed to sun, air, and moisture, and are also suited for composting have been proposed as an alternative to conventional plastic shopping bags. However, they do not readily decompose in a sealed landfill and represent a possible contaminant to plastic recycling operations. Resin identification code 7 is applicable.
Plastic shopping bags have advantages and disadvantages when compared to paper bags. Heavy duty multiple-use shopping bags (usually made of canvas) are often considered environmentally better than single-use paper or plastic shopping bags. Single-use bags can be recycled, or can be reused by individuals as trash bags, storage bags, etc.
Biodegradable Plastics Shopping Bags are a new addition that is environment friendly, can be used for single use utilities and when composted biodegrade into biomass, carbon dioxide (permissible emission standards as per EN 13432 and ASTM D 6400) and water.
Compared to paper bags
- Plastic bags are durable, strong, low cost, and water and chemicals resistant.
- They can be welded and have lesser energy and heavy chemicals requirements in manufacture.
- The light weight of plastic bags results in fewer atmosphere emissions compared to paper bags.
- Many studies comparing plastic versus paper for shopping bags show that plastic bags have less net environmental effect than paper bags, requiring less energy to produce, transport and recycle; however these studies also note that recycling rates for plastic are significantly lower than for paper.
- Plastic bags can be incinerated in appropriate facilities for waste-to-energy.
- Plastic bags are stable and benign in sanitary landfills.
- Plastic carrier bags can be reused as trash bags or bin bags.
- Plastic bags are complimentary in many locations (but are charged or "taxed" in others).
- Plastic bags are made from ethylene, a byproduct of natural gas. Chemists string together long chains of ethylene to form polyethylene. Less than 30% of ethylene is produced from naphtha, a byproduct of petroleum. As oil prices rise due to higher demand for gasoline , we are likely to produce more plastic bags from natural gas sources of ethylene.
- Plastic bags are flimsy and often do not stand up as well as paper or cloth for certain tasks.
- When disposed of improperly, they are unsightly and represent a hazard to wildlife. See environmental impacts section below.
- Plastic bags, conventional or "biodegradable", do not readily biodegrade in a sanitary landfill, though neither does paper due to lack of oxygen.
- Plastic bags (particularly thin dry cleaning bags) can cause unsupervised infants to suffocate.
Used bags should not be littered: this is unsightly, damages wildlife and exposes fisheries to eminent danger. Aquatic life can be threatened through entanglement, suffocation, and ingestion. One animal dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic. All sea creatures are threatened by floating plastic, from whales down to zooplankton. Research proves the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" in the North Pacific Gyre contains six times as much plastic as it does plankton.
Sea turtles may ingest bags seen floating in the water. The reason that turtles ingest marine debris is not known with certainty. It has been suggested that debris, such as plastic bags, look similar to, and are mistaken for jellyfish.
Birds swoop down and swallow indigestible shards of plastic. The petroleum-based plastics take decades to break down, and as long as they float on the ocean's surface, they can appear as feeding grounds. "These animals die because the plastic eventually fills their stomachs," Ocean Conservancy vice president Warner Chabot said. "It doesn't pass, and they literally starve to death.
A study of the seafloor using trawl nets in the North-Western Mediterranean around the coasts of Spain, France and Italy in 1993/4 reported a particularly high mean concentration of debris (1935 items/km2 or 19.35 items/hectare) (Galgani et al. 1995).
77% of the debris was plastics and of this, 92.8% were plastic bags.
Nearly 80% of litter in the ocean comes from land-based sources. Most of the land-based debris is conveyed to oceans via urban runoff through storm drains. The main source of plastic bags in the ocean is from urban runoff.
Reducing, reusing and recycling
Sturdy reusable shopping bags are EPA environmentally superior to single-use plastic shopping bags. A sturdy, reusable bag needs only be used 11 times to have a lower environmental impact than using 11 disposable plastic bags (providing you somehow dispose of your household waste without using bags). Reuse and recycling of plastic bags is encouraged, however reduction of use lessens overall environmental impact. Paper is accepted in most recycling programs while the recycling rate for plastic bags is very low, research from 2000 shows 20 percent of paper bags were recycled, while one percent of plastic bags were recycled. Shopping bags can also be reused
as trash bags, storage bags, etc. However, bags that are reused as trash bags typically still go to landfills
. Current research demonstrates that paper in today's landfills does not degrade or break down at a substantially faster rate than plastic does. In fact, nothing completely degrades in modern landfills due to the lack of water, light, oxygen, and other important elements that are necessary for the degradation process to be completed. Responsible solid waste
disposal is encouraged.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, only 1% of plastic bags were recycled in 2000. When one ton of plastic bags is reused as something else other than plastic bags or recycled, the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil is saved.
According to the UK government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there are several problems with plastic recycling, and in particular plastic bags:
- the high volume to weight ratio of plastic means that the collection and transport of this waste is difficult and expensive
- there are often high levels of contamination in plastic making the recyclate less usable, especially where food products are involved
- there is a very wide range of plastics in use and segregation is difficult
- the market for using recycled plastic is underdeveloped
Plastic shopping bags by country
In Australia shoppers are now encouraged to buy bags called "green bags" which cost about a dollar, but can be reused many times. The bags are coloured depending on the company that sells them. Some "green bags" are insulated for the carrying of hot or cold items. Locally, the town of Coles Bay in Tasmania banned plastic shopping bags in April, 2003. In early 2008, the Australian Federal Government stated it would consider action that would result in plastic bags being phased out by the end of 2008.
Australians used 4.84 billion plastic bags in 2007, at a wholesale cost of $0.0018 each The bags each weigh 35grams and are used to wrap many Australian products such as fruits and vegetables. The shopping bags themselves account for 10% or less of the plastic Australian shoppers carry home from supermarkets. In South Australia free single use plastic bags will banned as of the end of 2008.
Plastic shopping bags are banned in Bangladesh, where they are thought to cause flooding during monsoons by clogging drains.
Plastic shopping bags have been banned in Bhutan, on the grounds that they make the country less happy. See Gross National Happiness
However,the ban has not been successful at all and no current initiatives address the issue.
See media coverage www.kuensel.com for First National Waste Management Conference August 2008.
Alternatives to plastic bags are not being encouraged, segregation of any waste is not currently undertaken and recycling or waste-energy facilities are not available within the country.
Beginning on June 1 2008, for the entire country of China, all supermarkets, department stores and shops will be prohibited from giving out free plastic bags. Stores must clearly mark the price of plastic shopping bags and are banned from tacking that price onto products. The production, sale and use of ultra-thin plastic bags - those less than 0.025 millimeters, or 0.00098 inches, thick - are also banned. The State Council calls for "a return to cloth bags and shopping baskets.
Hong Kong enjoys a set of different laws as one of China's Special Administrative Regions
. The city has not prohibited the use of giving out free plastic bags yet even if the problem is of growing concern. Supermarkets play a large role in giving out free plastic bags for their customers. The problem has raised awareness amongst the people when a "No Plastic Bag Day" was launched back in 2006, a campaign co-organized by the Environmental Protection Department
and several green groups such as Green Student Council
, Friends of the Earth
, The Conservancy Association
and Green Power
. However, as the campaign is voluntary and only takes place on the first Tuesday of each month, it did very little to halt the problem. Government statistics show that the city currently disposes of 23 million bags a day. For a city of almost 7 million, this means an average of 3 bags disposed of per person per day. In December 2007, a Product Eco-responsibility bill was introduced. The bill proposes charging 50 cents HKD per plastic bag, with phase one being implemented in 2009. It is hoped that this bill will not only reduce the plastic bag problem the city faces, but also bring in 100,000,000 HKD per year.
Growing awareness of the ecological impact of plastic bags has led main mass retailers to force customers to buy reusable plastic or non-woven bags. This has been adopted by supermarkets such as Carrefour, which has managed to improve its image and save itself the purchase of the former plastic bags. Nonfood related retailers such as Cloth tend to prefer to switch to paper bags, allowing them to match the ecological demand and upgrade their image on two aspects: ecology and quality. In Paris, a ban on plastic bags will take effect in late 2007; a nationwide ban is scheduled to take effect on 1 January 2010.
In Spain, supermarkets give free plastic bags except some as Día which charge 3 cents
Recently, Spanish Government wants to adopt the National Plan of Integrated Waste which has among its objectives in 2010 to ban plastic bags single-use non-biodegradable.
Spain is the leading producer of plastic bags for a single use and the third consumer in Europe. Each year 10,500 million plastic bags are distributed in Spain, with a total weight of 96,000 tons. 62% of plastic bags are reused as garbage bags and 10% are recycled through the yellow containers.
Generally, most German supermarkets charge between 5 and 25 cents
per single-use bag, depending on the type of bag. Most shops also offer cloth bags or sturdier, woven plastic bags for about €1, encouraging shoppers to re-use them. Many high-street retail shops will provide bags free of charge. Most people will re-use single-use shopping bags, i.e., for collecting deposit bottles
or using them as bin liners
On March 4, 2002 the Republic of Ireland
introduced a €0.15 levy on every plastic shopping bag. This led to a 90% reduction in use of plastic bags and increased use of reusable bags. The money gathered by the levy was used to raise money for environmental initiatives. Many retailers in Ireland switched to supplying (untaxed) paper bags, or simply stopped supplying bags. Most supermarkets continued to supply plastic bags, subject to the tax. The charge was increased to €0.22 on July 1, 2007. Most supermarkets supply reusable woven bags, or heavy reusable plastic bags for about €1.00
The entire country of Israel has enacted legislation to add a surcharge for every plastic bag. Bags that contain fish, meat, poultry or fresh produce won't incur any charge. Aside from that, every plastic bag given to a customer will incur a charge of 1 NIS
which will be shown as a separate item on their receipt. The proposal will also subsidize for 6 months the sale of reusable bags, in order to create public awareness of the law.
In recent years cloth bags have been promoted and sold by some supermarkets as an alternative to plastic bags. In August 2006 the Collingwood
community in Golden Bay
declared itself shopping bag free by a group of local residents who promoted the idea. In early 2007 a nationwide campaign was kicked off with the aim of introducing a shopping bag levy similar to Ireland's.
In the town of Wanaka in the South Island the Bag the Habit Campaign has converted almost 50% of shoppers to say no to plastic bags. This saves around 1,500 plastic bags from ending up in the landfill every day. Wanaka has a permanent population of around 7,000 and visitor numbers of around 600,000. 30% of retail stores are now plastic bag free and Wanaka looks set to have the first plastic bag free supermarket in New Zealand with the 4 Square supermarket committing to removing plastic bags from their operation within 12 months. The end goal is for the town to be plastic bag free and over summer campaigners will be targeting the masses of visitors that come to enjoy the natural beauty of the town.
Mohammed Valli Moosa
, the Environment and Tourism Minister of South Africa
, jokingly named plastic bags the "national flower" of that country, and worked to introduce a minimum legal thickness of 30 micrometres
to increase their cost, reusability, and recyclability. They may not be legally given away to shoppers, and must instead be sold; however this rule is not always enforced strictly. The South African government collects a 3 cents per shopping bag environmental levy.
The littering of plastic shopping bags has created major environmental problems throughout Turkey. Currently, Turkish people use on average 1.2 bags per day each, most of which end up not being disposed of properly. The government has launched a feasibility study into the movement towards envirobags; however, this is not due until late 2008. However, Turkey has made the most success over the past time.
Growing awareness in the UK
of the problems caused by indiscriminate use of plastic bags is encouraging some large retailers to reward customers who bring their own bags or who reuse or recycle existing bags. This has been adopted by Tesco
, who call it the 'Green Bag Scheme'. This scheme gives the customer a "Green Clubcard Point" (see Tesco Clubcard
), which has the monetary value of between 1p and 4p, for every bag they reuse (or indeed if they use any bag that isn't taken from the Tesco bag holders, such as a backpack they own). Also as of Wednesday 1st October 2008 Sainsbury's Supermarkets removed all of their free plastic bags from the checkouts to encourage customers to reuse their own bags as part of their "Bring and old bag shopping" campaign. Sainsburys offers bags for life at 10p or other stronger / larger bags ranging from 50p - £1.
Retailers in Modbury have voluntarily eliminated usage of plastic bags, the first town in the country to do so. More towns are following suit, with campaigns in Lyme Regis in Dorset, Hebden Bridge, Exeter and Brighton. The Saffron Walden branch of Waitrose has eliminated free carriers completely, only supplying bags for life, with other branches within the chain trialling individual "green tills" where no free bags are supplied. No frills supermarket chains Aldi, Lidl and prior to its closure in July 2007, Kwik Save, charged 3 pence (5p in Kwik Save) for customers to use their plastic bags, to encourage people to take less and cut costs.
A campaign called morsbags.com has started in the UK and is spreading around the world. It involves making shopping bags out of recycled, unwanted material and handing them out for free. It is known as 'sociable guerrilla bagging' and it's free for anyone around the world to join up and join in - 'make a bag, make a difference'.
Having previously charged 5p for its single use bags, in 2007 IKEA became the country's first national retailer to abandon single use plastic bags altogether, instead offering their own range of bags for life which now come in 2 sizes: the blue bag (30p) and a brand new "baby blue" bag (15p).
On 24 July 2007 Green-England.co.uk commenced a petition for a 10p tax to be introduced on disposable plastic bags, with the money raised to be spent specifically on environmental projects. The petition was specifically endorsed by the Green Party and more than 10,000 signatures were obtained within the first two months. Letters about the petition were sent to Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs Hilary Benn, Chancellor Alistair Darling and Prime Minister Gordon Brown. At the Liberal Democrats conference in September 2007 the Lib Dem party activists called for a tax on plastic bags in similar terms.
Following an online survey the London Councils announced on 13 November 2007 that the 10th London Local Authorities Bill would include a provision to ban the distribution of free throw-away shopping bags in the capital. The London Local Authorities (Shopping Bag) Bill was deposited in Parliament on 27 November 2007. If the Bill is passed by Parliament, it is expected to become law by mid-2009.
On 12 January 2008 Girton, Cambridgeshire became the first village in the East of England to declare itself a "Plastic Bag Free Community". The scheme comes from Sustainable Girton, an environmental group made up of local residents. .
On 28 February 2008 Marks and Spencers announced that with effect from 6th May 2008 it will begin charging customers 5p per bag in order to bring awareness to ecological living. All the money raised will be donated to environmental, charitable purposes.
In his Budget speech of 12th March 2008 the Chancellor announced that in the absence of "sufficient progress" on a voluntary basis by retailers by the end of 2008 the Government will impose a charge on single use carrier bags in 2009.
Plastic bags have largely displaced paper bags as the most common type of shopping bag during the late 1980s and early 1990s. There has been no broad government action against the litter
problem; proper household waste management (reuse when possible and not littering) is considered a personal responsibility or a locally enforced misdemeanor. Some local governments have enacted ordinances, and many stores allow customers to return the bags for recycling
. Empty bags carried on the wind are popularly known as "urban tumbleweed."
On March 27, 2007, the City and County of San Francisco became the first city to ban common plastic shopping bags, followed shortly thereafter by nearby Oakland. Since July 1, 2007, all large supermarkets in the state of California will be required, by law, to take back and recycle plastic shopping bags.
Portland, Oregon is next to ban plastic bags according to Thanh Tan of news Channel KATU. See the news video
Plastic shopping bags are banned in at least 30 villages and towns in Alaska, including the towns of Emmonak, Galena, and Kotlik.
Seattle, Washington recently proposed a 20 cent "green fee" on plastic bags, which would go into effect on January 1, 2009.Seattle Public Utilities
Los Angeles, California has also placed a ban on plastic bag starting in 2010.
IKEA, the home furnishings retailer, imposes its own charge for plastic shopping bags in the US — charging $0.05 to any customer who wants a plastic sack. A similar charge has been in place since spring 2006 at IKEA stores in the UK, and the company says it has reduced use of bags in UK stores by 95 percent. IKEA hopes the 5-cent fee in the U.S. cuts bag use in half, from 70 million bags a year to 35 million.
The island of Zanzibar
banned the import and use of plastic shopping bags in November 2006. People who litter used bags are responsible for a significant problem, and government officials enacted the ban to protect tourism, an economic mainstay for the island..
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