Shopping bags, although convenient, have created major environmental issues around the world. Scientists estimate that about 500 billion plastic shopping bags are used each year around the globe. Hundreds of millions of these bags end up being thrown away annually. Studies have shown that only about 1 to 3 per cent of plastic shopping bags are recycled. This has created a load of plastic bags in landfills, streets, and waters throughout the world. The environmental consequence of this overload could be catastrophic.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, plastic bags were responsible for causing floods in most of Bangladesh. Experts found that many people were throwing out their plastic bags as litter. The drainage systems throughout the country became clogged with them and this caused the floods.
Animals have also suffered. In Western Europe, marine biologists have found many whales have died from ingesting plastic bags. The whales mistake the bags for prey and swallow them. This damages their insides and eventually kills them. Flamingoes and pelicans who scavenge along shores have also died after eating a plastic bag.
Last but not least, plastic bags may be altering the ecosystem of the world’s oceans. Marine biologists have learned that ocean species will often “catch a ride” on plastic debris in the water. This lets them travel farther and more quickly than they could under their own power. After arriving at their destination, these traveling species will then eat the native species. This is a grave threat to marine biodiversity.
To combat these problems, many stores and governments have sought alternatives to plastic shopping bags. In Ireland, for example, politicians passed a new law that levied a tax of 15 cents for consumers who use a plastic shopping bag. In places like Japan, some stores offer a small discount to shoppers who bring their own reusable bag for carrying home their purchases.