Environmentalists and government officials across the globe have been wondering how to reduce the pollution caused by the use of plastic bags. In May 2016, the New York City Council passed a 5-cent-per-bag fee on single-use bags handed out by most retailers. This was done to discourage its use and shift to recyclable paper bags, its closest substitute.
Plastic bags that tend to end up in landfills pollute the soil and the ones that are burnt, release toxic gases such as oxides of carbon, sulfur and nitrogen that harm the respiratory systems of humans and animals and contribute to global warming. Furthermore, a large proportion of disposed bags find their way in the ocean. An estimated 300 million plastic bags have ended up in the Atlantic Ocean alone. Sea creatures, especially Porpoises, mistake plastic bags as jelly fish or sea nettles and consume them which leads to death either through the blockage of the nasal passage or the intestine.
On the other hand, paper bags are recyclable, reusable as well as biodegradable. It is estimated that plastic takes about 10 to 20 years to decompose under sunlight whereas items made of paper take about 2 to 6 weeks. These arguments have been used to advocate the use of paper bags.
Surprisingly, the production of plastic bags is reported to be less damaging to the environment than the production of paper bags. A study found that 1000 paper bags generate twice as much greenhouse gas emission than plastic bags. Another study by the South African government reveals that manufacture of plastic grocery bags consumes 23% less energy and generates 76% less solid waste than does production of paper bags.
Keeping in mind the shortcomings of using plastic and paper bags, the use of biodegradable plastics has been proposed as a solution. These take on average two months to decompose and do not cause soil pollution. Also, its production process releases less emissions than that of paper bags. However, it hasn’t gained much popularity since it is speculated that its use will encourage indiscriminate littering and leave the problem of plastic consumption by sea creatures, unsolved.