Environmental impact of plastic bags


There are undoubtedly many advantages to using plastic bags – they’re light, tight, they have a wide range of possible uses and aren’t very expensive. The supporters of plastic bags are pointing at their reusability and low price. It’s possible to come across an opinion that everyone has the right to choose what to put their items in. However, it’s important to realize the impact of these products, which have recently become not only a global phenomenon but also a global environmental hazard.

Sea life devastation

Using plastic bags and wrappings directly or indirectly impacts all species across all continents, but those living underwater are in the biggest danger. Every year, eight million metric tons of plastics (80% of which come from the coast, with the rest being caused by ship transport), including plastic bottles, wrappings, bags, toys or damaged fishing nets, are washed away by the currents and pulverized into smaller pieces. These afterwards accumulate on the bottom of the sea resulting in the creation of floating plastic islands (probably the biggest of them is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, with its size varying from 700 000 to 15 million square kilometers depending on the season and water flow). Fish and other sea animals often mistake these plastic particles for food due to the fact they often contain remains of actual food or because they resemble the respective animal’s natural prey. Ingestion of such items usually leads to slow and painful death of these creatures. Once entering the food chain, the plastics can get to other animals’ bodies, such as fish-eating seabirds.

Unsustainable costs

Although plastic bags can endure hundreds of years before they decompose, most of them are only used once and then thrown away.  Many of them end up on landfills but just as many are simply left in the countryside. Apart from massive overflowing of the planet with plastics, this also results in huge public costs – the governments are spending hundreds of millions just on activities connected with disposal of plastic waste alone. Plastic bags might seem to be cheap in the supermarket, but their real price is in fact significantly higher.

Wasting the natural resources

Production of plastic bags is a demanding process from an energetic standpoint, which also includes releasing large amounts of harmful emissions into the atmosphere, thus reducing the quality of the air. This also represents how much the natural resources are wasted. Huge amounts of energy are spent on products that people only use for hours, more often just for minutes. Generally, to produce a plastic or polyethylene (PET, LDPE, or HDPE) bag of a certain weight, twice as much petroleum needs to be used. For example, 8 grams of petroleum are needed to produce a 4-gram bag and around 25 grams of carbon dioxide are released during its combustion. For 500 grams of plastic bags, a whole kilogram of petroleum is used and their combustion results in approximately 3kg of carbon dioxide being released.

Paper bags

Paper bags are made from renewable resources, are more easily recycled and decompose more quickly. Their impact on the environment, ecosystem and living organisms is incomparably smaller.

Interesting facts

  • Paper takes approximately 4 months to fully decompose (depending on the environment and natural conditions), a plastic bag (PVC) decomposes in 30 years, a PET bottle is fully decomposed after 70 years and polystyrene never fully decomposes.
  • Around 100 billion plastic bags are yearly used in the European Union.
  • An average European uses up around 200 plastic bags a year.
  • 89% of plastic bags are only used once in the EU.

Which bags are you using when you go shopping? So, the next time you will face the choice between paper and plastic, keep this information in mind.