This thin plastic bag is a unique object, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s hard to see it as anything but generic. I can’t seem to separate it from all the other billions of plastic bags in the world. My five senses always carry me back to what I think I know about it already. It’s much easier to reflect on it as a type of thing than as something unique. I know I could replace it with another plastic bag and not a word of this would change. My study of it won’t be weighted by ideas about rareness or the curiosity of a first time encounter. My experience of it is a lot like repeating a single word over and over again until it no longer sounds familiar – just a series of sounds.
This bag will probably have a long life, and my brief contact with it is only a fraction of its time on Earth. I come into its life for a short window, and perceive my use of it as the only time when it exists. I know that’s not true: it doesn’t stop existing when I get rid of it. Billions of other bags will meet a similar fate, not to mention all the other plastic and all the other materials that will also be carted away to landfills and dumps, no longer claimed by anyone. It’s an impressive creation, but I’m barely interacting with it at all. Over the course of its life, only a tiny fraction of time will be spent fulfilling its intended purpose as a container, possibly as little as a few minutes.
It’s easy to see the bag only in relation to myself. I didn’t observe it when it was being manufactured, and I won’t see it once it’s left my possession. But the bag, like me, like any object, is traveling through time according to its own reality. From the point of view of the bag, I am not significant, even though it was created for my use. The bag doesn’t know it came from a manufacturing plant, or that it may end up in a landfill, and it doesn’t experience fulfillment during my brief use of it. We both exist in this world, me and the bag, and our relationship could be seen as two objects coming together and then parting ways (2).
Our species often views itself as superior to all other things – plants, animals and sometimes even other humans. This outlook flatters us, but fails to to cherish the limits of natural resources.However, there is a communal aspect to all the different life cycles. The bag and I both come into existence, affect our surroundings – physically, chemically, emotionally – and then return to the earth in some fashion. But we have altered our natural resources in such radical ways that it’s difficult for them to return to the earth. Our shared destiny as material beings means that harm done to the earth is harm to oneself (1).
Our interactions with the natural environment will always feel unique in a way that manufactured items can’t, thanks to their uniformity. One TV is identical to another of the same model, one car horn like the next. Whereas, each animal or plant of the same species still has subtly unique characteristics that are not exactly duplicated in another member. The unnatural, otherworldly qualities of something like plastic can’t evoke the same response as something like wood or clay (1). But objects can only be generic if we encounter multiple examples of them. What happens when a person encounters only one of its kind, isolated from others? Perhaps there may come a day in the distant future when a single plastic bag carefully preserved in a collection will inspire a tactile response that is once again unique.
This bag belongs to a vast landscape of things that each rise up briefly for a prescribed moment, called forth to the notice of a human for our temporary use. These things then settle into the background, part of an immense accumulation of the human-made. This bag could easily last longer than many things with greater value to me, personally or culturally, including human lives I hold close. Even if I live to be quite old, this bag may outlive me. It’s this near immortality that inspires our collective resentment toward the plastic bag.
Plastic has become so commonplace that it’s hard to look at it and still feel a sense of discovery at its remarkable attributes. When plastic first came into the consumer market, it was frequently disguised as whatever medium it was meant to replace. For example, in the 1870’s billiard balls were made with two shades of plastic layered to produce an appearance like ivory. By the time Bakelite came into common use in the early 20th century, manufacturers were dispensing with the deception, hoping to condition buyers to this new material for its own sake (8). 100 years later we use strong, lightweight, flexible plastic as disposable bags and even food wrap without finding it at all remarkable. These objects have become ordinary and their unearthly appearance is now beneath our notice. Single use plastic bags are viewed as at best a minor convenience, at worst an environmental ill. In our daily perception of plastic bags, we are usually not impressed with the technology. We might resent its hold on us, if we reflect on it at all.
Plastics are manufactured polymers, or hydrocarbon chains. Naturally occurring polymers had already existed – shellac, rubber, cellulose, silk – and the quest to find something similar but manufacturable resulted in the creation of plastic (10). Parkesine, derived from organic cellulose in 1862, and Celluloid, made from cotton fiber and camphor in 1869, were the first plastics created (8). But the real breakthrough occurred when Baekelite was invented as an alternative to shellac by Leo Baekeland (10). From that point on the quantity and variety of plastics has increased exponentially, along with our use of them.
The thin plastic bag is created by subjecting polyethylene, a synthetic resin, to a process known as blown film extrusion, which resembles a cross between die extrusion and blowing bubbles (7). As simple as this concept may now appear, it could not have been easy to achieve. Like so many technologies we now take for granted, trying to imagine the dreaming, creativity and stubborn trial and error that produced this now mundane item allows us a brief glimpse of how wonderful it must have initially seemed. Our boredom with plastic bags stands in contrast to their position in the history of technology and human achievement. Though the bag itself may have become a shameful symptom of a throwaway society, the science that makes it possible is part of a system of discovery and problem-solving that very much defines modern day humans.
Plastic in all its forms is deeply entrenched in society as it currently exists. Beyond the world of plastic bags, trinkets and cheap gadgets, it has allowed the creation and manufacture of a vast array of medical equipment, car parts, building components – pretty much anywhere you find humans you will now find plastic. It has made many items affordable to produce in numbers large enough for every human to partake. The ease with which it’s made and distributed has resulted in a system that doesn’t need to ask if some of it, much less all of it, is necessary.
It has become more cost effective for many restaurants to give “disposable” plastic dishes than to wash and reuse “non-disposable” ones. U.S. hospitals do not reuse tubing, IV bags, syringes and other biohazardous items, even though sterilization of non-plastic alternatives is entirely feasible (4). Oddly, we worry about contamination from reusable dishes. In the documentary Bag It, Jeb, the filmmaker, attempts to go through several fast food restaurant drive-ins and use his own plate, rather than the disposable packaging offered. In every case he is rebuffed due to concerns over passing any foreign object into the window – it is a one-way window. However, passing money through that same window is not deemed a cross contamination risk (3).
Plastic bags have a long life expectancy, are molecularly stable, are strong for their size and lightweight (nearly weightless, they seem), and they number in the billions, so they offer the prospect of infinite use. Not only are these qualities of the sort that we can appreciate out of context, they are precisely the qualities that made plastic bags valuable to us in the first place. We are actually troubled by the fact that they are doing exactly what we designed them to do. Making a material that can last indefinitely and then using it for items termed “disposable” is not rational. Items we intend to throw away should probably have a very short life cycle. Plastic bags are estimated to live as long as several centuries in a landfill.
In the present time, plastic is ubiquitous, and virtually all of it that has ever been made still exists somewhere, so we can probably agree that it is not really disposable. We could make the argument that, if used in moderation for non-disposable purposes, it would not be so problematic to the environment. But clearly, that’s not how we use it. Plastic was created in the spirit of scientific curiosity and industry, but like many innovations, has become a train flying off the rails. Plastic shopping bags are a predictable byproduct of this chain of events. They were introduced at grocery stores in 1977 and have increased in use exponentially. We now use one million bags per minute and 500 billion bags annually worldwide (3)[editor’s note: statistics are from 2013]. Adding a level of perversity to this waste is the fact that the raw material for plastic bags comes from fossil fuels – oil and natural gas. We use a non-renewable resource to create an item deemed disposable that in fact remains in the environment indefinitely, never to return to its fossil fuel state, and disposable only in the sense that we remove it from our sight to place elsewhere, out of sight.
Recently, bans on plastic bags have been implemented in many places. Given this reversal, perhaps in time the plastic bag could become rare, even taking its place in anthropology museums alongside other obsolete human artifacts. There is currently a revaluation of the plastic bag and its use as an everyday object. The United States has been behind many countries in its consciousness about plastic bag use. The American Chemistry Council even went so far as to sue towns that attempt to impose a charge for plastic bags, much less ban them, and they have been regularly successful in this (3). Nevertheless, towns like Seattle, who had lost the battle against this powerful lobby, have restaged the fight until they were successful: In 2012 Seattle finally banned plastic bags (9), and it’s probably only a matter of time before a plastic bag ban is the standard around the globe. [editor’s note: New York implemented a limited ban on plastic bags in 2020] Just the same, even if we all collectively stopped using plastic today, there is already an enormous quantity of it out in the environment that isn’t going anywhere any time soon (10).
A common solution to the question of single use plastic bags is reusable shopping bags, a hugely popular phenomenon, evidenced by the rows of them available for purchase at grocery and retail stores. Although that is exactly what the situation seems to call for, there are caveats to this strategy: We must have our bags at the ready when we shop, and only some of us are doing that some of the time. This is significant because the bags need to be used regularly to justify their existence. Many of them are made from non-woven polypropylene, which requires around 28 times as much energy to produce as a thin plastic bag. They are also much thicker, and so if they do end up in a landfill they will take much longer to break down than their “disposable” cousins. On top of that, many of these bags are manufactured in China from where they must be shipped for use in the United States, increasing their carbon footprint (5). Retailers like Walgreens, Target, Whole Foods and many more are producing these bags in the millions to sell to customers, so unless they are truly being used as intended, they are adding to plastic bag waste in a significant way, rather than reducing it (5).
Plastic bags are often reused for garbage, storage, or dog poop receptacles. Reusing them for trash will technically lessen your reliance on purchasing dedicated garbage bags, but the bags will still finish their lives in a landfill. And using plastic to preserve organic waste from animals is hard to justify as a form of environmental conservation. In any case, pet supply manufacturers now manufacture and sell single use bags to consumers for this express purpose — more plastic.
A relatively small percentage of plastic actually gets recycled. Most still ends up in landfills or incinerators. The highest recycling rate is for category 1 recyclables (you can normally find the number on the bottom of plastic containers), at 20%. This number is low, and even more striking if you realize that it only applies to plastic that actually makes it to the recycling plant in the first place. Many other plastics are recycled at a rate of 0% or near 0%. Additionally, a lot of our country’s garbage is shipped to China for recycling, increasing its carbon footprint (3).
Our best option is to reduce. This means using your reusable shopping bags, choosing cloth over plastic, and evaluating your purchases based on how much plastic they contain (packaging included).
The impact of plastic bags is already enormous, so if they ceased to be used today, there would still be a lengthy aftermath from their use. In his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman explains the long term effects of plastic in the environment. One of the most troubling legacies of plastic is its presence in the oceans. There are seven major oceanic gyres, which are massive swirling currents in the middle of each major water body, and they contain untold quantities of garbage that has found its way out to sea. The debris follows the natural flow of fluid from land to stream to river to ocean until it joins an enormous, swirling mass in the remotest regions offshore. These gyres all have what are often called “garbage islands” but more closely resemble a soup. Some are estimated to be as large as continents, but due to their diffuse nature, they are hard to measure precisely. Within these patches of swirling waste, plastic photodegrades, as opposed to biodegrades, meaning it breaks down to increasingly small pieces that are consumed by marine animals, and this physically impedes their digestion (10). Plastic bag fragments floating in the sea resemble jellyfish and any animal that eats jellyfish, like sea turtles, has a good chance of eating plastic bags instead (3).
The long term effects of plastic in the sea cannot be known for certain because plastics have not been in the environment long enough to have their impact comprehensively measured. But clearly they have entered the food chain and are, or soon will be, affecting every animal from top to bottom (10). And my bag, which actually claims to be biodegradable, will only biodegrade if it is exposed to optimal conditions: It needs to be placed with organic waste, at over 100 degrees in temperature, something that is not going to happen in the ocean or really most places outside of a compost pile (10). The plastic already in the environment may take up to thousands of years to break down (10).
Although I don’t feel much toward this single bag, I do feel guilty in general. I think of all the matter on earth that has been processed by humans, as well as all that has not yet been processed, but will be. Most of what we convert into products will not return to anything resembling a natural material in this lifetime, or several lifetimes. There is a slowly shifting balance between what has been “made” and what has not. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, only change in form, and there is a huge volume of matter that no longer exists in its original form. This includes items that are redundant, that we didn’t enjoy all that much, and that we can’t even remember. Raw material, including fossil fuels, is invested in creating such everyday experiences as drinking a soda, buying a cheap trinket in the checkout line, or simply carrying a bag with purchases for a couple blocks. The things fade from memory as specific entities and just become a hazy type of experience.
Given their constant presence, it can take a while to see plastic bags for what they are: a solution to a problem we didn’t have. At no point in our history was anyone unable to carry away their goods from a store due to plastic bags having not yet been invented. Our appetite for discovery, innovation and convenience has often produced such “solutions.” It reminds me of a recurring sketch on SNL in the 1990’s, called “Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy.” In one installment, he humorously suggests a more efficient way to manage classrooms:
Said another way, sometimes attempting to streamline life, we may actually cause greater nuisance, waste, and a drain on resources. These innovations can also lead us to retreat from meaningful interactions with our environment, and leave us feeling subtly troubled by the volume of unnecessary things surrounding us.
The human spirit is tenacious. The same inventive mindset that brought plastic bags into existence has the capacity to find solutions and alternatives. We collectively strive to make our lives easier in so many ways. This has often led us to short term thinking and questionable applications of our cleverness. But if we simply expand our view of problem solving to a lengthier timeline, we will apply ourselves equally well to many of the issues we have admittedly created. Instead of short terms solutions to noncritical issues, we can find long term solutions to critical issues.
As individuals, we have much more power than we realize. The choices we make as consumers impact our environment decisively. Not only can we choose what to buy or not buy — or whether we will carry our purchases in a cloth tote — but we can refuse to partake in some of the worst excesses of wasteful manufacturing. We can cut off the demand, which will reduce the supply.
Fortunately, that is already happening. The discourse surrounding environmental protection has exploded over the last few decades. Though it is still an uphill battle, it’s reassuring to hear these topics discussed in common conversation, on every news network, and at the highest levels of government. Somehow we manage to move forward as a society, even if it can be slow and painful. We got ourselves here and we have the capacity to get ourselves out.