New Bans on Plastic Bags May Help Protect Marine Life

not a plastic bag
A trendy alternative to the conventional plastic bag.
Photo courtesy of Megan & David Powell via Flickr

China’s surprise crackdown on plastic bags, announced on Tuesday, will prohibit the production and distribution of ultra-thin bags beginning June 1. The ruling bans the manufacture, sale, and use of plastic bags under 0.025 millimeters thick and prohibits supermarkets and shops nationwide from handing out the sacks for free. With the move, China joins a growing list of regions, from San Francisco to South Africa, that are using taxes, bans, and other regulations to try to decrease the prevalence of the ubiquitous bags.

Some 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags—including large trash bags, thick shopping bags, and thin grocery bags—were produced globally in 2002, according to the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2004 report. Roughly 80 percent of those bags were used in North America and Western Europe. Every year, Americans reportedly throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags, which can clog drains, crowd landfills, and leave an unsightly blot on the landscape.

Perhaps less widely known is the destructive impact that plastic bags have on oceans and marine life. Tossed into waterways or washed down storm drains, the bags are the major source of human-related debris on the seabed, particularly near coastlines, according to the 2007 Worldwatch report Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity. At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, and plastics and other synthetic materials cause the most problems for marine animals and birds.

Every year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags. The animals may mistake the bags for food, such as jellyfish, or simply become entangled. Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to break down, so even when an animal dies and decays after ingesting a bag, the plastic re-enters the environment, posing a continuing threat to wildlife. While most plastic bags eventually break down into tiny particles, smaller sea creatures may still eat the sand-sized fragments and concentrate toxic chemicals in their bodies.

In addition to the bans, taxes, and other government policies now in place to fight the plastic-bag scourge in countries like Bangladesh, Ireland, Kenya, and Taiwan, a variety of responses have emerged in the business community. Some companies now manufacture and purchase biodegradable bags or bags made from recycled materials, and a growing number offer in-store recycling for the receptacles. Although recycling the petroleum-based bags is not always cost-effective, one ton of recycled plastic bags can save 11 barrels of oil, according to an estimate in EJ Magazine.

Other responses include manual cleanups and bans on dumping plastic from ships at sea. Many anti-plastic-bag advocates support the commonsense approach offered by the Chinese government. “We should encourage people to return to carrying cloth bags, using baskets for their vegetables,” said a notice posted on the central government website.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro@worldwatch.org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

China has joined a growing list of regions trying to decrease the prevalence of plastic bags, which can be particularly harmful to marine life.