Every year about 1 trillion plastic bags are made around the globe - that’s 2 million bags a minute! In fact, in South Africa, plastic bags littering the environment were once so prevalent that the plastic bag was referred to as “South Africa’s National Flower”. These bags are only used for a few minutes, and thanks to their lightweight construction, they easily blow out of bins and landfills and into the ocean, where they can stick around for hundreds of years.
What can I do?
Today, Pledge #6 asks you to give up single-use plastic bags and opt for reusable alternatives.
It is actually quite easy to rid the world of plastic shopping bags - all it needs is a little dedication, practice and commitment:
- If you don’t already have reusable shopping bags, get a few on your next shopping trip or repurpose what you already have. The ones made from recycled PET that are available from most supermarkets are great, and there are plenty of other options if you want to express your individuality better!
- If you already have a collection of single-use shopping bags at home, reuse them as much as you can before discarding them.
- Form good bag habits - eg. get used to storing your bags in the boot of your car, keeping one in your handbag, washing them every so often, etc. These habits make using these bags much more convenient.
- Consider making your own reusable bags as a family activity. There are loads of interesting ideas on YouTube.
- If you habitually use your plastic shopping bags as bin-liners, consider if you actually need bin liners at all (e.g. dry recyclables and compostables could be separated out directly into separate containers) and try to use newspaper bin liners.
Why does it matter?
Like with all single-use plastic products, the less we use, the less there will be available to pollute the environment. Also, the less we use, the less will be produced, saving vital natural resources.
On average, plastic shopping bags are only used for between 12 and 14 minutes, and are then discarded. These bags are made of polyethene and do not biodegrade. This means that when the bags end up in the environment and are exposed to the sun, they start to break up into smaller and smaller pieces. Items that are biodegradable, like banana peels, are broken down, or consumed, by microorganisms. Plastic is not a food source for microorganisms, so it just sticks around, with the pieces just becoming smaller and smaller over time. Bags that end up in the landfill, just sit there, taking up space and those that end up in the environment pose incredible threats to animals that mistake them for food. Plastic shopping bags have for years consistently featured as part of the top ten items most picked up during beach cleanups.
Myth-busting: Biodegradable and compostable plastics - greenwashing?
Get your mind around this for a second: Compostable materials are biodegradable. But biodegradable materials are not always compostable. Technically, when something is biodegradable, it means that it will break down into water, carbon dioxide and minerals and can do so, under the right conditions, in the landfill. However, in many cases the use of the term “biodegradable plastic” is simple greenwashing - all these plastics do is break up into particles too small for you to see, but the plastic is still present.
Compostable materials also break down into their natural components (in theory), but can only do so under specific composting conditions - often only obtainable in large, industrial-scale composting facilities. So, when compostable materials end up in landfill, they do not turn into compost as the conditions are not right for this.
So, don’t be lulled into thinking that single-use “compostable” or “biodegradable” bags are a good option - they are also plastic, and capable of the same damage as “normal” plastics. Stick to reusable options wherever possible!
Who can I follow?
Since 2011, Hayley McLellan has been running the Rethink the Bag campaign of the Two Oceans Aquarium and Two Oceans Aquarium Education Foundation - a project to have single-use plastic bags banned in South Africa. With thousands of supporters, partnerships with retailers that have pledged to stop or reduce the use of single-use bags, and work with schools and community-based organisations, Rethink the Bag is a great campaign to keep an eye on!
Take the 28 Day Challenge! Make your Ocean Pledge!
This post is part of the #28DayOceanPledgeChallenge! You can find the other 27 posts and challenges on the Two Oceans Aquarium website, or by signing up for the Challenge newsletter below to receive one challenge a day for 28 days: