Plastic Bags: A Short & Suffocating History

Plastic Shopping Bag

Plastic bags in all their non-biodegradable glory are our guilty pleasure. A commodity disseminated worldwide from the late 1960s onwards; plastic bags have become a subject of much debate in the last decade during which the hazards resulting from the hoarding and irresponsible use of plastic bags became conspicuous to us.

Birth of Plastic Bags

A more successful and usable batch of Polyethylene was produced in England in 1933 that went on to be used in secret by the English soldiers to wrap ammunitions during World War II. This marked the beginning of the dominance of plastic in the world. Plastic bags tradition spread from England to northern Europe and from there to the U.S. The biggest of enterprises and supermarket chains started employing plastic bags for carrier and storage purposes which soon led to smaller businesses and eventually most individuals to switch to plastic bags completely. From then on, the reasons for the popularity of plastic bags remain the same for every consumer. Plastic bags are good insulators, corrosion-free and chemically inert. Plastic bags are also water resistant, strong, reusable and cheap to produce. All of these advantages make it hard to stick to cloth and paper alternatives and thus, plastic dominates the world’s storage bags industries to a great extent till this date.

The spread of plastic bags across continents

The more drastic spread came in Europe in the 1960s, eventually reaching the US in the late 1970s. With two of the most powerful countries of the world labelling plastic bags as superior and more practical, the rest of the world was bound to follow suit.

Swedish company Celloplast came up with the “T-shirt plastic bag” design in 1965 which had a sealed bottom and an open top to allow storage and carriage of things.

ExxonMobil introduced the U.S. to plastic bags in the late 1970s. Safeway and Kroger, the two most influential supermarket chains in the US made a complete switch to plastic bags in 1982. By 1985, more than half of U.S. grocery stores had started using plastic bags along with paper ones. Jumping on the bandwagon, almost every other country including India had replaced paper bags with their plastic counterparts by then.

Environmental Hazards

It is well known that it can take 500-1000 years for plastic bags to break down. This durability poses immense problems for every life form around the globe.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in the central North Pacific Ocean between 1985 and 1988. The marine debris accumulated in the world’s largest ocean had caused the death of innumerable marine animals. Turtles, it was discovered, mistook plastic bags for jellyfishes and consumed them, leading to their mass killing.

Plastic bags cause blockage in the sewers and leading to floods. Bangladesh became the first country in the world in 2002 to impose a ban on thin plastic bags after it was found out that these bags were the main cause behind the recurring floods in the country.

Birds and sea-birds meet premature deaths because of plastic bags, too, when they mistake them to be nest-building materials and by consuming them after mistaking them for fish in the algae-covered area. Plastic bags accumulation can cause overcrowding of landfills and waterways pollution.

Bans on plastic bags

No to Plastic

The world was alarmed about the hazardous effects of plastic bags at the beginning of the last decade. Since plastic bags are made from oil and natural gas, they put pressure on the natural resources. This has raised opposition from environmentalists because they are concerned about the harm plastic can and is doing to the environment. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was yet another concern.

Bangladesh imposed bans on plastic usage ever since it was discovered that plastics clogged drains and were thus responsible for severe drains in the country.

San Francisco was the first city in the U.S. to impose a ban and fine on plastic bags usage.

Governments of most countries have imposed a limit on the thickness of the plastic bags that can be produced or have banned plastic bags altogether. European Union has planned to diminish the use of plastic bags by reducing it as far as 90 bags per person every year by the end of 2019. Most of Africa, Asia, and South America have gone plastic bags free. The last country to ban in 2017 is Kenya.

Read more about steps initiatives taken by various countries to cut down plastic use.

Plastic Bags in the Indian context

Sikkim became the first Indian state to go fully organic after it banned not only the plastic bags but also all plastic bottles and containers in 2016.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change passed regulations banning all plastic and polythene bags less than 50 microns in 2016.

Karnataka has issued a notification banning plastic bags and issuing a fine on usage. Himachal Pradesh, Goa, and Maharashtra have put limits on the thickness of plastic bags. Apart from these, 18 other Indian states/ UTs have passed laws to ban the use of plastic bags.

The implementation of the bans, however, remain affected by loopholes. For the most part, there is no awareness about the bans among small vendors and local shop merchants. Plastic bags are supplied by states where there are no bans to states where there are laws against their use, causing the flow of plastic bags to start again. The cheap and durable nature of plastic bags and the unavailability of equally appealing biodegradable substitutes is one of the biggest reasons for the rampant use.

A follow-up on the past year’s plastic consumption in India

Plastic Dump Site

When it comes to mapping the extent of success of the bans placed on plastic bags (complete or partial) across the country, the only state that has emerged fully plastic-free is Sikkim.

The number of states/UTs imposing bans has been impressive, what with 25 of them furthering partial or complete bans on the use of plastic bags. Despite this, 25000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated daily from all over the country. A few reasons behind this irony are-

The Differences in laws

In the case of Uttar Pradesh, plastic bags less than 50 microns are banned by the state government. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), however, lists UP as a state with a complete ban. Punjab, which is a state with a complete ban, has loopholes since the local shopkeepers keep buying plastic bags from other states like Gujarat.

Lack of Awareness

In areas like Srinagar, as surveyed by activists in early 2018, there is a complete lack of awareness about any bans on the use of plastic bags which results in the rampant use of the hazardous material.

The Urban-Rural Divide

Despite awareness, better state budgets and supposedly strict penalizing laws, the largest share in plastic waste belongs to the biggest urban and metropolitan centres around the country like Delhi, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Maharashtra tops the list of plastic waste generators with 4.6 lakh tonnes of waste per year.

The solution for the future

We have the responsibility for the solution to the problem we are responsible for. The rampant plastic pollution and the inability of laws to curb it may have worsened the situation but, as parties to environment protection, some methods can be adapted to ameliorate the situation.

Plastic pollution can be stopped in the following ways-

  1. By using recyclable plastic materials in every household and office.
  2. By extracting plastic from water bodies.
  3. Recycling of plastic on a large scale.
  4. By using plastic to create roads.

Efforts by the government, like the making plastic pollution reversal an agenda and appropriate funds towards this purpose, can improve the situation and create awareness among people. Awareness initiatives by NGOs, local bodies, teachers, and students can sensitize people towards plastic usage. If our collective convenience has given a rise to this problem, our collective awareness should be able to correct it.

Also read: What is Your Plastic Killing.

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Vanshika Jain
A major prerequisite of an English Major degree is that one is erudite literati and a good writer. Writing comes as naturally as breathing to me. And, it is for my love of ruining parchments by inking that I got into writing about personal care, home care and wellness. Many people struggle with finding natural solutions for problems related to skin care, hair care, health and hygiene. And it is always good to find researched articles written on natural solutions to such problems on the internet. The plus side for the writers is that it gives them an opportunity to promote natural and organic ways of health and home care while simultaneously enhancing their own knowledge on the matter and honing their writing skills.

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