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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

4 Common Items That Can be Reused Again and Again

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reuse reduce recycle plastic bottles etc
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Vanatchanan | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/vanatchanan%20buahom

As a society we are getting much better at taking our obligations to the world and environment around us more seriously. This is undoubtedly a good thing! The effects of climate change are beginning to manifest across the world, and this is turning the issue from an abstract threat into a very real danger. Trying to introduce some greener, more eco-friendly practices into your life isn’t just a great way of doing something beneficial for society and the world around you. It is a wonderful way of engaging positively with the world and carries with it numerous psychological benefits.

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Being a greener, more ecologically friendly person doesn’t require any dramatic life changes. Breaking or making a few small habits is all it takes to make your life a greener one. In this article we look at one of the easiest, yet most effective green practices to get into: reusing everyday items.

Jars and Containers

Glass and metal are widely recycled, and recycling is a good thing! However, consider whether any containers you buy, whether it’s a tub of ice cream or a jar of coffee, can be washed out and reused for something else. Mason jars, for example, can be used to store homemade pasta sauce and can be washed for future use. Once you start thinking about it, you will find endless opportunities to reuse your old containers.

Soda Bottles

An ice-cold soda is a wonderful treat on a hot day, but buying soda can get expensive, and the manufacturing and distribution of the drinks themselves isn’t great for the environment. However, by holding on to your old soda bottles and repurposing them as water bottles, you can save money on drinks, or use them to measure out water for your garden.

Plastic Bags

Most of the time groceries come in paper bags, which are better for the environment than the plastic alternatives, but they are less durable and thus harder to reuse. Whenever the store places your items in a plastic bag, hang onto it so you can reuse the bags again. If you want to take it one step further, consider looking into buying some personalized recycled bags. These bags are designed to last for a long time and are made of recycled materials. They look striking and unique, they’ll turn heads, and maybe even attitudes!

Seeds

If you’re a keen gardener, then you will already probably know how to reseed your plants in order to ensure a fresh crop after each plant’s lifecycle. If you have space in your garden, or haven’t yet tried your hand at gardening, then consider planting a small vegetable plot. Growing your own veggies means that you’ll be helping to cut back on the emissions generated by their transport and production. The best part about growing your own food in this way is that, by harvesting properly and saving the seeds, you can be set up with fresh vegetables for life!

Reusing and recycling common household items is an easy way to make your world a little bit greener. Once you start looking for these opportunities you’ll realize that they’re everywhere!

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Environment

These 5 Green Office Mistakes Are Costing You Money

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eco-friendly green offices
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Stokkete | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/cyano

The sudden interest in green business is very encouraging. According to recent reports, 42% of all companies have rated sustainability as an important element of their business. Unfortunately, the focus on sustainability will only last if companies can find ways to use it to boost their ROI.

Many businesses get so caught up in being socially conscious that they hope the financial aspect of it takes care of itself. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to go green and boost your net income at the same time.

Here are some important mistakes that you will want to avoid.

Only implementing sustainability on micro-scale

The biggest reason that brands are going green is to improve their optics with their customers. Too many businesses are making very minor changes, such as processing paperwork online and calling themselves green.

Customers have become wary of these types of companies. If you want to earn their business, you are going to need to go all the way. Bring in a green business consultant and make every feasible change to demonstrate that you are a green organization from top to bottom.

Not prioritizing investments by long-term ROI

It isn’t realistic to build an entirely green organization overnight. You will need to allocate your capital wisely.

Before investing in any green assets or services, you should always conduct a long-term cost benefit analysis. The initial investment for some green services may be over $20,000. If they don’t shave your cost by at least $3,000 a year, they probably aren’t worth the investment.

Determine which green investments will have the best pay off over the next 10 years. Make these investments before anything else. Then compare your options within each of those categories.

Implementing green changes without a plan

Effective, long-term planning is the key to business success. This principle needs to be applied to green organizations as well.

Before implementing a green strategy, you must answer the following questions:

  • How will I communicate my green business philosophy to my customers?
  • How will running a green business affect my revenue stream?
  • How will adopting green business strategies change my monthly expenses? Will they increase or decrease them?
  • How will my company finance green upgrades and other investments?

The biggest mistake that too many green businesses make is being overly optimistic with these forecasts. Take the time to collect objective data and make your decisions accordingly. This will help you run a much more profitable green business.

Not considering the benefits of green printing

Too many companies believe that going paperless is the only way to run a green organization. Unfortunately, going 100% paperless it’s not feasible for most companies.

Rather than aim for an unrealistic goal, consider the option of using a more environmentally friendly printer. It won’t be perfect, but it will be better than the alternative.

According to experts from Doranix, environmental printers have several benefits:

  • They can process paper that has been completely recycled.
  • They consume less energy than traditional printers.
  • They use ink that is more environmentally friendly.

You want to take a look at different green printers and compare them. You’ll find that some will meet your needs as a green business.

Poorly communicating your green business strategy to customers

Brand positioning doesn’t happen on its own. If you want to run a successful green business, you must communicate your message to customers as clearly as possible. You must also avoid the appearance that you are patronizing them.

The best approach is to be clear when you were first making the change. I’ll make an announcement about your company‘s commitment to sustainability.

You also want to reinforce this message overtime by using green labels on all of your products. You don’t have to be blatant with your messaging at this stage. Simply provide a small, daily reminder on your products and invoices.

Finally, it is a good idea to participate in green business seminars and other events. If your community has a local Green Chamber of Commerce, you should consider joining as well.

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