September 23, 2019

7 Disturbing Ways Plastic Bags Impact The Environment

Plastic bags - oh the convenience! Yet, with their convenience comes a series of negative impacts for the environment. First of all, plastic bags are very difficult to recycle. You may find it as a surprise that there are no regulations on how the universal recycle symbol is used…so even if you buy plastic bags that have the symbol of three arrows going in a circle, that does not mean the material of that plastic bag is actually recyclable. In fact, most plastic bags that are collected by recycling companies cannot be recycled and they sit in landfills for hundreds of years. That’s a little disturbing, isn’t it?

To that end, below are 7 disturbing ways that plastic bags impact the environment.

1. Wildlife
Animals in the wild consume plastic bags that have ended up in the water and in the waste system. Every year, over 100,000 marine animals and 1,000,000 seabirds die from the consumption of plastic bags on the ocean's surface. In the North Pacific Ocean you will find the largest colony of albatross in the world at Midway Atoll. Unfortunately these isolated Islands are home to many dead birds who have ingested large amounts of plastic bag pieces. 4 tons of plastic is said to accumulate on these otherwise isolated islands, daily. Marine animals aren’t the only ones suffering. Cows have been found to swallow plastic bags which leads to a slow and painful death, with recent studies reviewing that upon surgical examination cows were often plagued with 50 or more plastic bags inside their intestinal tract. The continued consumption of plastic bags in these areas of the world not only lead to serious injury but in most cases, to death. This high mortality rate caused by plastic bag consumption is threatening the very existence of many species around the world.
2. Domestic Animals
Domestic animals are at risk as well. Plastic doesn't break down easily in the digestive tracts of animals. Rather, it will fill their stomachs and create a sensation of being full. This encourages the animals to consume the plastic bags that get washed up via rivers or blown off the local highways. Of course, a plastic bag is not a proper meal, and will do nothing more than clog the intestines of the poor animal who consumed it. Without proper care or surgical removal, most of these animals will die from starvation or other complications.
3. Destruction of Local Habitats
Habitats are being destroyed not just because of climate change or poaching but because of plastic bags. Plastic bags, once settled, get into soil and slowly release toxic chemicals. They eventually break down into the soil, with the unfortunate result being that animals eat them and often choke and die. Plastic bags also make their way into our sewage systems. Runoff water collects and carries discarded plastic bags and ultimately washes them into storm sewers. This is a big problem! Clogged storm sewers can disrupt the water flow in local watersheds. Blocked sewer pipes often significantly reduce available water to local wetlands, creeks and streams, leading to massive die-offs and in some cases, total collapse.
4. Flooding in Municipal Areas
Tangentially when these storm sewers collect discarded plastic bags they get blocked which can lead to flooding in the roads. This excess flooding forces Municipal areas to close down the entire street until they can clear the water drains and storm sewers. This excess flooding leads to building and property damage as well as vehicular damage.
5. Aesthetic Degradation
A buildup of plastic bags ruins the aesthetics of an area, which to many is not a frivolous concern. Studies have indicated that the ability to look out at a natural landscape brings with it a series of benefits. Natural habitats reduce the recovery time for hospital patients, improve concentration for children, reduce crime in local areas, and increase property values. When habitats are overrun with plastic bags, trash and other plastic debris, all of these benefits are drastically reduced.
6. Detrimental Micro-plastics
If you toss a paper towel into a local runoff it will break down in about one month. A piece of plywood discarded into a river system will eventually break down in the span of a year. Plastic bags? A single plastic bag can take 10 to 100 year to decompose. However, complete decomposition doesn’t always occur. As plastic bags make their way into oceans, rivers, and lakes they never completely biodegrade and instead are continually broken down into smaller pieces until they are considered micro-plastics. Micro-plastics are any piece of plastic that is less than 5 mm long. The problem here is that micro-plastics are not visually intrusive like a whole plastic bag but they can still cause a detrimental impact on the ecosystem and particularly the wildlife in that ecosystem. Imagine the health impact on wildlife that consume a mouthful of micro-plastics every time they eat.
7. Risks to Humans
Plastic shopping bags are one of the most common forms of litter found on land. Plastic bags build up in large quantities at choke points such as local drainage systems, a problem that is particularly detrimental in developing countries. However, there is also the issue of health risks that plastic bags pose to the human population due to the toxins they release. When plastic bags get into local waterways and start to break down, not only do they create smaller pieces of plastic during the degradation process but they also release toxins into the water supply. This means that the toxins continue to recirculate and make their way into local water systems. Yikes!