What’s so bad about plastic bags?

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turtle eating plastic carrier bagOur ‘Change the World Wednesday’ challenge this week over at Reduce Footprints is to go plastic bag free for a week.

I gave up plastic bags 2 years ago – by this I mean disposable plastic carrier bags. We take our own bags, boxes and containers to the shops instead.

These are more sturdy, last longer and do much less harm to the environment.

I do still use plastic bags for the freezer when I buy the odd pack of frozen vegetables such as peas or green beans, and these are recycled after use.

So why does the plastic carrier bag get such bad press?

Supermarkets in the UK give out 17½ billion carrier bags per year with the average family accumulating 60 bags in four trips to the store.

Only one in every 200 carrier bags is recycled and the rest end up discarded.

Once in the landfill, they can take up to 1000 years to break down.

What concerns me more, however, are the ones that don’t make it to landfill and end up as litter. It’s either unsightly in trees and on pavements or worse still, end up in our oceans.

Here the carrier bags can be mistaken for food such as jellyfish and eaten by turtles where they cause a slow and painful death. Other carrier bags break down into tiny slivers where they carpet the ocean floor.

Globally, an estimated one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastics.

If disposable plastic carrier bags don’t end up in landfill, as litter on in the ocean, they can become stuck in drains where they cause untold damage, become a breeding ground for bacteria and cause flooding.

I remember reading a shocking story about a Minke whale stranded on a beach in Normandy. It was found to have 800g of plastic bags and packaging within its stomach. Amongst the identifiable litter were 1 English plastic and foil crisp packet, 2 English supermarket bags, 7 coloured dustbin fragments, 7 transparent plastic bags and 1 food container. It was this story that turned me off carrier bags forever and got me looking at all the other types of plastic I use in my day to day life.

Giving up disposable carrier bags is one of the easiest things to do. It’s a great ‘first step’ for anyone who wants to begin a green journey. So why not join in with this challenge and see if you can go plastic bag free?


  1. Steve on October 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Here in Montenegro one of our daily shopping challenges is to try to prevent shop assistants from giving you plastic bags for your purchases. No matter how small your purchase it will be put in a plastic carrier bag. A pack of cigarettes … goes in a carrier, a bar of chocolate … goes in a carrier. Sadly the landscape reflects this attitude and discarded carriers can be seen everywhere, especially in streams rivers and on the beach. some of the larger supermarket chains are beginning to get the message but still almost insist you take your purchases in a bag claiming their bags are now all biodegradeable. It seems to me that pretty much everything will “biodegrade” – eventually! So I was wondering if these “new” bags do degrade faster than traditional ones and if so how much quicker and how safely. Is this just another “green wash” ploy by the retailing sector? Anyone know?

  2. Small Footprints on October 13, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Thank you, Mrs. Green, for this post. There are so many reasons to give up plastic bags … but one of the most compelling, to me, is the affect they have on our ocean life. It just breaks my heart!

  3. Mrs Green on December 24, 2010 at 7:01 am

    @Steve: Hi Steve, yep we have to ‘unpack’ from a well meaning checkout person too! Most are ok with it, but some are offended which isn’t nice. I don’t like to upset people and I understand they are on autopilot a lot of the time. I am not a fan of biodegradable bags AT ALL. They break down into tiny slivers and require chemicals to speed up the breakdown processes. IMO if you’re going to use a carrier bag its better to use a ‘normal’ one that can at least be recycled…

    @Small Footprints: I hear you sister – the bottom of the ocean is not a happy place right now 🙁

  4. Joddle on August 21, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Mrs G thanks for your advice re biodegradable plastic bags. I’ve had my doubts about them but have had a couple of people try to convince me they are alright – leaving me confused. I don’t see biodegradable bags as a solution anyway – we need to stop using plastic irresponsibly. No matter how you look at it, if it takes 2 years or 100 years to biodegrade a plastic bag or a plastic disposable item cannot justify its waste legacy.

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