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The Environmental Impact of One Trillion Plastic Bags

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plastic bag use rise - Dave Bleasdale via Flickr

Plastic bags are everywhere. Two million bags are used every minute, and it’s common to find piles of them in people’s homes, waiting to maybe someday be reused.

Because they’re so convenient and are given out for free, they’ve become so customary we don’t think of them as worth anything. We often use more than we really need to and hardly think twice about it. But there’s a hidden cost. And that cost can have a huge effect, especially since we use so many, up to one trillion per year.

Brief History

High-density polyethylene was first created in 1953. In the 1960s, employees at Celloplast used it to design what has become today’s ubiquitous plastic bag.

By 1985, almost three quarters of supermarkets offered plastic bags, but they still lagged behind paper bags in popularity with just 25 percent of the market. Due in part to aggressive industry advocacy, plastic bags had captured 80 percent of the market within the next decade.

What Happens to Them

Today, we have so many plastic bags we don’t know what to do with them. Some of them are reused as trash bags or to carry miscellaneous items. Others are recycled, but less than 1 percent of plastic bags sent to a recycling plant get used in a recycling project.

Many others end up in landfills, where take hundreds of years to fully decompose. Millions of bags litter the ground, getting stuck in trees or floating in our waters. An estimated 300 million end up in the Atlantic Ocean each year.

Environmental Impact

Plastic bags can harm animals, both on land and at sea. Animals often mistake them for food, ingesting them and sometimes choking on them.

Sea turtles frequently mistake them for jellyfish. Plastic ingestion has been documented in 56 percent of cetacean species, a classification that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. Marine birds often bring bits of plastic back to their young for food. One study found plastic in the stomachs of 97.6 percent of deceased Laysan albatross chicks, a bird that nests in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Marine animals can also get entangled in plastics, which can keep them from eating and breathing properly and trap them. Patches of plastic debris can also carry species across ocean waters to new habitats, which may threaten biodiversity if those species are invasive. A 2002 study found that on 30 remote islands, plastic debris doubled the chances of this kind of movement of species, called rafting.

How Plastic Bags Break Down

Standard plastic bags don’t actually biodegrade, they photodegrade, meaning they’re broken down by sunlight. When they do break down, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Eventually, they become microplastics, plastic debris smaller than five millimeters long. These microplastics are easily ingested by marine life of any size. They then make their way up the food chain, often finding their way into the stomachs of people.

What Can Be Done

In order to mitigate the effects of plastic bags on the environment, governments around the world are introducing bans and taxes on them:

  • In 1993, Denmark created the first plastic bag tax. Today, the country uses very few plastic bags, about 4 per person per year.
  • California was the first U.S. state to regulate the use of plastic bags. In 2014, the state banned the use of single-use plastic bags at large stores and began requiring a minimum 10 cent charge for recycled, reusable or compostable bags at other locations.

Other countries, states and cities have followed suit with bans and fees, while others have ramped up recycling programs.

Few Good Alternatives

However, representatives of the plastics industry and others, even some environmentalists, say that plastics should not be banned and that the alternatives are even worse for the environment. According to a study by the UK Environment Agency, plastic bags are actually the most eco-friendly option if they’re reused at least once.

This is because they are the least carbon-intensive to manufacture and distribute. They’re easy to produce, and their size and compactness make them convenient to transport. People also treat reusable bags as less than reusable. They tend to throw them away or opt for plastic even though they have reusables lying around. Because they cost so much more to produce, they need to be used many times to even out their environmental impact.

Plastic bags have undeniable environmental effects. They become litter, end up in the oceans and can harm animals. Bans and taxes can help reduce plastic bag use. Recycling programs can reduce their negative impacts.

These measures won’t have any effect, however, if people don’t change their habits. Reusable bags need to be used many times over in order to reap their environmental benefits. Only buying as many bags as you need helps as well by reducing the amount that must be produced. Ultimately, we have to change the way we use bags, plastic, paper and otherwise, if we want to reduce their negative environmental impacts.

Bobbi PetersonBobbi Peterson loves writing and regularly posts on her blog Living Life Green. She’s also a freelance writer, green living advocate and environmentalist. You can find more from Bobbi on Twitter.

 

Environment

Build, Buy, Or Retrofit? 3 Green Housing Considerations

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green housing techniques

Green housing is in high demand, but it’s not yet widely available, posing a serious problem: if you want to live an eco-friendly lifestyle, do you invest in building something new and optimize it for sustainability, or do you retrofit a preexisting building?

The big problem when it comes to choosing between these two options is that building a new home creates more waste than retrofitting specific features of an existing home, but it may be more efficient in the long-run. For those concerned with waste and their environmental footprint, the short term and long term impacts of housing are in close competition with each other.

New Construction Options

One reason that new construction is so desired among green living enthusiasts is that it can be built to reflect our highest priorities. Worried about the environmental costs of heating your home? New construction can be built using passive solar design, a strategy that uses natural light and shade to heat or cool the home. Builders can add optimal insulation, build with all sustainable materials, and build exactly to the scale you need.

In fact, scale is a serious concern for new home buyers and builders alike. Individuals interested in green housing will actively avoid building more home than they need – scaling to the square foot matter because that’s more space you need to heat or cool – and this is harder to do when buying. You’re stuck with someone else’s design. In this vein, Missouri S&T’s Nest Home design, which uses recycled shipping containers, combines the tiny home trend with reuse and sustainability.

The Simple Retrofit

From an environmental perspective, there’s an obvious problem with building a new home: it’s an activity of mass consumption. There are already 120 million single-family homes and duplexes in the United States; do we really need more?

Extensive development alone is a good enough reason to intelligently retrofit an existing home rather than building new green structures, but the key is to do so with as little waste as possible. One option for retrofitting older homes is to install new smart home technology that can automate home regulation to reduce energy use.

Real estate agent Roxanne DeBerry sees clients struggle with issues of efficiency on a regular basis. That’s why she recommends tools like the Nest Thermostat, which develops a responsive heating and cooling schedule for the home and can be remotely adjusted via smartphone. Other smart tools for home efficiency include choosing Energy Star appliances and installing water-saving faucets and low-pressure toilets. These small changes add up.

Big Innovations

Ultimately, the most effective approach to green housing is likely to be aggressive retrofitting of everything from period homes to more recent construction. This will reduce material use where possible and prevent further aggressive land use. And finally, designers, activists, and engineers are coming together to develop such structures.

In the UK, for example, designers are interested in finding ways to adapt period houses for greater sustainability without compromising their aesthetics. Many have added solar panels, increased their insulation levels, and recently they even developed imitation sash triple glazed windows. As some have pointed out, the high cost of heating these homes without such changes will push these homes out of relevance without these changes. This is a way of saving existing structures.

Harvard is also working on retrofitting homes for sustainability. Their HouseZero project is designed for near-zero energy use and zero carbon emissions using geothermal heating and temperature radiant surfaces. The buildings bridge the gap between starting over and putting up with unmanageable heating and cooling bills.

It will take a long time to transition the majority of individuals to energy efficient, green housing but we’re headed in the right direction. What will your next home be like? As long as the answer is sustainable, you’re part of the solution to our chronic overuse – of land, energy, water, and more.

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Environment

How the Auto Industry is Lowering Emissions

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auto industry to clean air pollution

Currently, the automotive industry is undergoing an enormous change in a bid to lower carbon emissions. This has been pushed by the Government and their clean air plans, where they have outlined a plan to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

Public Health Crisis

It is said that the levels of air pollution lead to 40,000 early deaths in the UK, with London being somewhere that is particularly bad. This has led to the new T-Charge, where heavy polluting cars will pay a new charge on top of the existing congestion charge. Other cities have taken action too, with Oxford recently announcing that they will be banning petrol and diesel cars from the city centre by 2020.

Eco-Friendly Vehicles

It is clear that the Government is taking action, but what about the auto industry? With the sale of petrol and diesel plummeting and a sharp rise in alternatively fuelled vehicles, it is clear that the industry is taking note and switching focus to green cars. There are now all kinds of fantastic eco-friendly cars available and a type to suit every motorist whether it is a small city car or an SUV.

Used Cars

Of course, it is the cars that are currently on the road that are causing the problem. The used car market is enormous and filled with polluting automobiles, but there are steps that you can take to avoid dangerous automobiles. It is now more important than ever to get vehicle checks carried out through HPI, as these can reveal important information about the automobile’s past and they find that 1 in 3 cars has a hidden secret of some kind. Additionally, they can now perform recall checks to see if the manufacturer has recalled that particular automobile. This allows people to shop confidently and find vehicles that are not doing as much damage to the environment as others.

Public Perception

With the rise in sales of alternatively fuelled vehicles, it is now becoming increasingly more common to see them on UK roads. Public perception has changed drastically in the last few years and this is because of the air pollution crisis, as well as the fact that there are now so many different reasons to switch to electric cars, such as Government grants and no road tax. A similar change in public opinion has happened in the United States, with electric car sales up by 47% in 2017.

Progress

The US is leading the way for lowering emissions as they have declined by 758 million metric tons since 2005, which is the largest amount by far with the UK in second with a decline of 170 million metric tons. Whilst it is clear that these two nations are doing a good job, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to improve the air quality and stop so many premature deaths as a result of pollution.

With the Government’s plans, incentives to make the change and a change in public perception, it seems that the electric car revolution is fully underway.

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