The Environmental Effects Of Plastic Shopping Bags

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Originally patented in 1965, the single-use plastic shopping bag has since become ubiquitous in America and around the world. Plastic bags were first introduced in grocery stores in 1977, and by the early 2000s they constituted 80% of the market for shopping bags (Laskow). These bags caught on because they were stronger, lighter, waterproof, and many people found them easier to carry than paper. Most importantly though, they were cheaper, meaning retail stores had strong incentives to make them available to customers and promote their use (Petru). In other words, plastic bags became popular, and remain so today, because they are convenient. However, this convenience does not take into account the environmental effects associated with their production, distribution, and disposal. Once these aspects of their use are considered, it is clear that the convenience of plastic shopping bags do not justify the harms to the ecosystem caused by their existence.
Plastic bags are usually made out of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a strong, durable plastic made from ethylene monomers (Clark). 134 million metric tons of ethylene are produced each year as of 2014, with 28% of that production going towards the manufacture of HDPE (Lazonby, “Ethene”). Ethylene is produced from oil and natural gas, and in the process has significant environmental consequences. According to a 2013 study by Ghanta, Fahey, and Subramaniam published in the journal Applied Petrochemical Research, “For ethylene produced from naphtha and ethane [the two main sources of ethylene], the energy expended during the extraction and ocean-based transportation of fossil fuel sources (crude oil and natural gas) contributes significantly to adverse environmental impacts such as GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions, acidification, and eco-toxicity.” To make ethylene, fossil fuels must be extracted, transported, and processed (Lazonby, “Ethene”). Then the ethylene must be processed to make HDPE (Lazonby, “Poly(Ethene)”). HDPE, in the form of plastic pellets, is then transported to the plastic bag manufacturer. The manufacturing process of Novolex, a maker of plastic packaging products that sells bags under the brand name Hilex Poly (“Company Overview”), is described
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