The Environmental Cost of Plastic Bags Might Surprise You

A trillion plastic bags are used and discarded every year. The environment has no shortage of manmade predators, but that adds up to two million hits per minute. 

In early 2020, Nigerian researchers from three different universities published “A Look at Plastic Bags and Alternatives.” The study noted that a car can travel a mile on the amount of petroleum required to make just 14 plastic bags. At the current rate of growth, the plastic industry might account for 20 percent of the world’s total oil consumption by 2050. 

As far as the larger environmental impact, the study notes, “Prospecting and drilling for these resources contributes to the destruction of fragile habitats and ecosystems around the world. The toxic chemical ingredients needed to make plastic produces pollution during the manufacturing process…. Over time [plastic bags] break down into smaller, becoming more toxic petro-polymers. Much of the plastic bags produced are designed to be thrown away after being used only once. As a result, plastic bag packaging accounts for about half of the plastic waste in the world.”

It gets even worse. The researchers cite studies that suggest plastic bags block drainages and clog sewers, intensifying natural disasters and providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes and pests. Several animals, notably turtles and dolphins, often mistake the bags for food and experience blockage in their airways and stomachs. The toxic chemicals used in making the bags may transfer to animal tissue, eventually entering the human food chain, which can also happen when the bags degrade and contaminate the soil and water. 

Bags made from hemp fibers were among the alternatives that the researchers endorsed. Hemp bags can be reused several times before disposal, and even then, the bags biodegrade in a short amount of time. In a nutshell, the researchers said hemp totes “eliminate waste, are cheap to produce and are easily recyclable.” 

Hemp fabric is also many times stronger than plastic (and most other fabrics, actually), and purchasing a hemp bag often supports local enterprise and business. The only caveat is that you should wash hemp bags after every few uses to keep them clean. 

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