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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

Want to Connect With Nature? Start by Disconnecting From Busyness

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Connect With Nature

Have you ever found yourself staring at one of your (many) devices and feeling slightly disgusted with how much time you waste on technology? If so, you aren’t alone. We all have moments like these and it’s important that we use them as motivation to change – especially if we want to be more connected with nature.

How Busyness Impacts Your Connection With Nature

Whether you realize it or not, you live an ultra connected life. Between smart phones, tablets, computers, and wearable devices, you’re never very far from some sort of technology that can connect you to the internet or put you in touch with other people. That’s just the world we live in.

While it could be argued that this sort of omnipresent connectivity is a positive thing, it’s also pretty clear that being permanently tethered to technology impacts our ability to strip away distractions and connect with nature.

When you’re always within arm’s reach of a device, you feel a sense of busyness.  Whether it’s browsing your social media feed, uploading a picture, reading the news, or responding to an email, there’s always something to do. As someone who wants to spend more time in nature, this is problematic.

4 Practical Ways to Disconnect

If you want to truly connect with nature and live a greener lifestyle, you have to be proactive about finding ways to disconnect. Here are a few practical suggestions:

1. Switch to a New Phone Plan

It’s not always practical to totally unplug from the world. Family and work responsibilities mean you can’t go off the grid and continue to fulfill your responsibilities. Having said that, there are some ways to scale back.

One suggestion is to switch to a prepaid phone plan. When you have a prepaid phone plan, you’re far less likely to spend hours and hours of your time making phone calls, sending texts, and surfing the web. It forces you to be more conscious of what you’re doing.

2. Get Rid of Social Media

Social media is one of the biggest time wasters for most people. Whether you realize it or not, it’s also a huge stressor. You’re constantly being exposed to the best snapshots of everyone else’s lives, which makes you feel like you’re missing out on something (even when you aren’t).

If you want to feel a sense of relief and free yourself up to spend more time in nature, get rid of social media. Don’t just delete the apps off your phone – actually disable your accounts. It’s a bold, yet necessary step.

3. Create Quiet Hours

If you aren’t able to get rid of social media and disable various online accounts, the next best thing you can do is establish quiet hours each day where you totally detach from technology. You should do this for a minimum of three hours per day for best results.

4. Build Community

Do you know why we’re drawn to social media and our devices? Whether consciously or subconsciously, it’s because we all want to be connected to other people. But do you know what’s better than connecting with people online? Connecting with them in person.

As you build real life, person-to-person relationships, you’ll feel less of a need to constantly have your eyes glued to a screen. Connect with other people who have an appreciation for nature and bond over your mutual interests.

Untether Your Life

If you find yourself constantly connected to a device, then this is probably a clear indicator that you aren’t living your best life. You certainly aren’t enjoying any sort of meaningful connection with nature. Now’s as good a time as any to untether your life and explore what a world free from cords, screens, and batteries is really like.

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Environment

6 Tips for an Eco-Friendly Move

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Moving can be a stressful and challenging time. No matter how many times you’ve done it in the past, the process of packing up, transporting, and unpacking isn’t very fun. It’s also not very eco-friendly. As you prepare for your next move, there are things you can do to ensure you leave less of a footprint behind.

6 Tips for a Greener Move

Because of the stress and pressure felt when moving, it’s pretty common for people to rush through the process and focus on getting it done. In fact, a lot of people take an “at all costs” approach; they’ll do whatever it takes to make the process as cheap and fast as possible. Don’t be one of those people. It doesn’t take much effort to turn a standard move into an eco-friendly move.

1. Maximize Each Trip

When moving across town, it’s imperative that you make as few trips as possible. Each trip requires more gas, more emissions, and more waste, and more time.

If you’re taking your personal vehicle, consider pulling a trailer behind it. You’d be surprised how much stuff you can fit into a small trailer. Not only will it make your move greener, but it’ll also save you a lot of time.

2. Donate Things You Don’t Want to Keep

The longer you live somewhere, the more junk you accumulate. This isn’t always obvious until you start packing for a big move. Instead of bringing all of these things with you to your next home, get rid of the stuff you don’t need! If the items are useful, donate them. If the items don’t have much value, toss them.

3. Reuse Moving Boxes

Not only are moving boxes expensive, but they’re also wasteful. If you need a bunch of cardboard boxes, consider looking around on Craigslist, asking friends, or checking the dumpsters behind stores. You can usually find a bunch of recycled boxes of all different shapes and sizes. Here are 12 places you can get them for free.

4. Get Creative With Packing

Who says you need moving boxes? You may find that it’s possible to do most of your move without all that cardboard. Things like storage containers, trashcans, filing cabinets, buckets, and dressers can all store items. Blankets and sheets can be used in lieu of bubble wrap to prevent your items from getting damaged.

5. Use Green Cleaning Supplies

Once you arrive at your new place, resist the urge to pull out a bunch of harsh chemicals to clean the place. You can do yourself (and the planet) a favor by using green cleaning supplies instead. Ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and ammonia are great to start with.

6. Forward Your Mail ASAP

Don’t delay in forwarding your mail from your previous address to your new one. Not only is it wasteful for the Postal Service to route your mail to a place where you don’t live, but the next owner is probably just going to toss your letters in the trash.

Moving Doesn’t Have to be Wasteful

Most people only move once every few years. Some people will go a decade or more without a move. As a result, the process of moving often feels strange and new. The less experience you have with it, the less likely it is that you’ll be as efficient as you should. But instead of just diving into the process blind, take some time to learn about what an eco-friendly move looks like. That way, you can leave behind the smallest footprint possible.

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