Understanding how a plastic bag is made and what it is made of is a good starting place to understand why plastic bags are bad for our environment. Shopping bags are just one of many things made from plastic. Plastic is a huge part of our lives and a lot of it is beneficial. But, plastics that are produced to be disposable, used once and made for our convenience are hard for me to understand, especially if they harm our environment.
Polyethylene is used to make plastic. The chemical makeup of polyethylene makes it perfect for making bags. The Polymer Learning Center describes it as, “A molecule of polyethylene is nothing more than a chain of carbon atoms with two hydrogen atoms attached to each carbon atom”. These chains are strong, have a powerful connection because the elements share electrons, and will not easily break apart. That’s what makes plastic bags stretch without breaking. I picture Silly Putty, do you?
Okay, now let’s look at that chain of polyethylene again. Each link in that chain is called a monomer. One monomer of polyethylene is ethylene. Ethylene comes from natural gas or oil. It is made from a byproduct of oil called naphtha or methane from natural gas. Since it is a consequence of these resources, oil and natural gas are not drilled JUST to make plastic bags. But, there can be environmental damage in getting these non-renewable resources for whatever reason we get them. Since oil, gas, and the water used to get the natural gas are non-renewable, we can never put them back into the environment when we are done with them.
If plastic bags escape a recycling bin, garbage truck, the landfill, or blow out of people’s hands, they get caught in trees; end up in waterways and storm drain pipes. Our marine ecosystems suffer the most. It is hard to think a plastic bag floating in the water as doing any harm. But, mixed with the rest of the garbage in our largest marine ecosystem, the ocean, it becomes a very disturbing problem. Imagine floating islands of garbage.
In the end, there are many reasons why plastic shopping bags are bad for the environment. Ironically, the things we admire in them; their strength, lightness and flexibility, make them a problem. Plastic shopping bags are made of non-renewable resources whose harvesting harms the environment. Bags are a litter problem that cause harm to our animals and ecosystems and possibly to humans. Lastly, plastic shopping bags do not biodegrade and they are not easily and effectively recyclable. Plastic bags may be cheap and seem inconsequential, but these flimsy things have huge effects on the environment. Hopefully this will make you think twice when asked “Paper or plastic?” Choose neither and bring your own bag!