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Banning Plastic Bags, Helping Marine Life

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.

Creative Commons Photo Credit)

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 with your questions, comments, and story ideas.

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A ban on plastic bags has just been proposed in Australia too, and some people are freaking out about it. They say they re-use their plastic shopping bags as bin liners, so now they'll have to buy new bin-liners instead of reusing an existing bag.

I use biodegradable corn-starch bags, and compost almost all of our kitchen waste anway, so it's not a huge problem for me and I've got no idea what to tell these alarmists.

Can anyone from an area with a ban/restriction already in place tell me what people do to replace bin-liners?

Posted by: Julie on 10 Jan 08

Don't forget that bags are not the only plastic items that are harming our oceans. I've been collecting and tallying my plastic waste since June in an effort to significantly reduce my plastic consumption and plastic waste and to encourage others to do the same. Here's a list of plastic-free changes I've made to date. I hope it inspires others to take action.

Posted by: Beth Terry on 11 Jan 08

Meanwhile, New York City has just just passed a measure to place bag recycling bins in large stores, without providing any incentive for people to follow through. The law is so disappointing and lacking in vision, and seems to have been designed with the help of the "Progressive Bag Alliance," the lobbying organization of the bag manufacturers. I hope other cities and municipalities won't let their environmental policies be dictated by corporate interests, but will follow the forward-thinking lead of places like San Francisco, Ireland and China.

Posted by: Rejin L. on 11 Jan 08

Australian supermarkets provide "green bags" which are cloth-like and cost about a dollar. Pretty much everyone I've seen uses them, so I can't imagine why the public is responding so negatively. In fact, everyone I've talked to about them thinks you have to be an idiot not to use them. Now if only Americans were that responsible...

Posted by: laura on 11 Jan 08

A lot of pet owners keep their plastic grocery bags to collect pet waste. When you think about it, this is an incredibly counterproductive solution: you're taking important biomass (the poop) and encasing it in a compost-proof container (the bag) that virtually guarantees it won't be able to re-enter the environment through standard decomposition.

Try picking up after your dog with newspaper pages or (as one commenter noted) biodegradable cornstarch bags.

Posted by: Patrick on 11 Jan 08

I counted 208 items of litter (not including cigarette butts) on the streets here this morning, from my home to college - 2 1/2 blocks, one side of the street.

That's typical amounts of litter here (Greenock, and supposedly a better part of this town), and most of it comes from college and high school students.

I'm told by litter charities and watchgroups I've contacted about this that it is typical for urban areas in the UK in general.

Governments and the like need to do way more than just ban plastic bags. Especially here.

Posted by: zupakomputer on 14 Jan 08

This news just rocked my world. I'm an eco-blogger and green designer in Portland, Oregon. You can find my eco-blog at: Thank-you for being such an awesome resource. I will share this news with my readers and continue to spread the good news. With so much negative energy going around in the media about global warming and destruction, it is really refreshing to focus on the positive things happening.

Posted by: Cheryl Janis on 27 Jan 08



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