The negative environmental effects of plastic shopping bags

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Kelvin Chidi Ujeh



People use plastic bags to carry items like food and clothes, which are bought from shops. Plastic bags are commonly used, even though we know they can damage the environment. For urban solid waste, plastic bags have become major items in the litter system. This has resulted in many detrimental environmental effects including animal choking, pollution, blockage of channels, rivers and streams, and landscape disfigurement. As a result of these effects, the public at large, activists and legislatures have voiced outrage to the degree that some national governments have banned the use of plastic bags for shopping.

There are many root causes to attribute the problem of plastic bag waste in Nigeria and other countries. South Africa, for example, has restricted the manufacture and usage of plastic bags by enacting parliamentary legislation. Several European countries have adopted a fee for plastic bags, taking into account the negative effect of plastic bags on agricultural production. The Japanese government has also levied a plastic bag fee to limit production and use (Md-Jalil et al., 2013). Prohibitions on the use of plastic bags and the development of alternatives are a most welcome step when compared to putting pressure on people's production and use of plastic bags. Even though charging a levy on plastic bags has a positive effect on protecting and preserving the fertility of agricultural land, the resulting continued and dominant use of plastic bags itself would negate the benefits or advantages of the levy.

Impact on the environment

The major impact of plastic bags on the environment is that it takes many years to for them to decompose. In addition, toxic substances are released into the soil when plastic bags perish under sunlight and, if plastic bags are burned, they release a toxic substance into the air causing ambient air pollution. Simons (2005) suggests that, owing to the unregulated accumulation of carcinogenic compounds, the use of plastic bags may allow inroads into cancerous diseases. Plastic bags are dumped indiscriminately into landfills worldwide that occupy tons of hectares of land and emit dangerous methane and carbon dioxide gases as well as highly toxic leachates from these landfills during their decomposition stage.

Waste from plastic bags poses serious environmental danger to human and animal health. If plastic bags are not properly disposed of, they can impact the environment by causing littering and stormwater drain blockages.

Animals may also get tangled and drown in plastic bags. Animals often confuse the bags for food and consume them, therefore blocking their digestive processes. Animals becoming entanglement in marine debris, including plastic bags, may cause starvation, choking, laceration, infection, reduced reproductive success, and mortality (Katsanevakis, 2008). There were instances where large endangered tortoises were found to have suffocated because of the mistaken swallowing of plastic bags combined with seaweed (Thiel et al, 2003).

Plastics are now omnipresent in the marine environment and this worsening trend needs urgent action. Plastics have been identified as a problem in the marine environment since the 1970s, but the issue of plastic pollution in marine and freshwater environments has only recently been identified as a global problem. As a consequence, marine plastic bag pollution has become noteworthy environmental concern for governments, scientists, non-governmental establishments, and the international community (Carpenter and Smith, 1972).

The presence of plastics in the marine environment poses several challenges that hinder economic development. Trapped plastic bags along coastlines produces an environmental challenge that has detrimental effects on tourism. Economic losses are linked to lower tourism earnings, adverse effects on tourist activities, and harm to the marine environment. Trapped shoreline plastic has a negative effect on shipping infrastructure, energy production, fishing, and aquaculture (Sivan, 2011).

Plastic bags in ocean waters is a significant and growing global pollution epidemic. It is an increasing source of contaminant, either introduced during processing or absorbed from the atmosphere. Compounds leaching from plastic bags has been found to be responsible for increasing levels of reported toxicity. Leaching toxicity from plastic waste should also be weighed when determining the effects of plastic pollution in oceans.

Plastic bags pose a threat not only to marine life, but also to agricultural land. Plastic bags are accountable for the dilapidation of the atmosphere and agricultural land, which has inadvertently used up precious earth resources, in particular oil (Sugii, 2008). This now poses a major challenge to environmental and agricultural production. Discarded plastic bags that have already made their way into the field are not only particularly detrimental to farming but also severely harmful. The consequence of this would be the environmental deterioration of the so-called developed global society.

It is very unfortunate that, although plastic bags have been seen to have reduced agricultural production worldwide, there has been little significant awareness-raising to undertake proper, effective and concrete proactive action. Indeed, few serious scientific investigations have been made by international organisations and the international community to reduce the ever-increasing consumption of plastic bags.

Plastic bags should be prohibited globally and their biodegradable equivalents should be implemented to address these gross and harmful issues.


The public should be informed not to use plastic bags, but to use eco-friendly alternative bags made from fabric, natural fibres and paper to reduce the problems associated with plastic bag wastes.

Regulation against the indiscriminate use and recycling of waste from plastic bags is strongly recommended, as well as restriction of the free sale of plastic bags by retailers.

In the United States, the single-use plastic bag is a significant worry for local governments. Plastic bags remain a major source of land-based litter and marine debris, which obstruct stormwater management systems due to their tremendously low re-use and recycling rate. In reaction, local governments have taken a number of steps designed to minimise the store-level use of single-use shopping bags in the following main categories: bans, fees and levying taxes; minimum product size of bags; public awareness requirements; and retailer take-back initiatives.

Convery et al., (2007) also explains that the Republic of Ireland introduced a levied tax on plastic shopping bags in 2002, which had hitherto been provided free at points of sale to customers. The consequence of the tax on the use of plastic bags in retail outlets was intense. There was a greater percentage decrease in use, with a related benefit in the form of reduced littering with adverse effects on the environment.

In an effort to monitor the environmental issues posed by plastic shopping bags, the government of South Africa merged regulatory elements with a ‘per-bag tax’ similar to that imposed by the Irish government. Plastic bag charging started with a fixed nominal price per bag across all retailers. With the implementation of the tax, the use of plastic bags dropped dramatically across retailers. However, the paid levy only had short-run success, and as soon as the price was set to a lower rate, the demand picked up. The levy’s effectiveness has declined, despite its extensive application at checkout points, and customers have continued to steadily increase their consumption rates.

Even so, the combination of legislation and pricing has successfully curbed the short-term use of plastic bags. Additional investigation indicates that the legislation’s impact may rise over time (Hasson et al., 2007). They further elucidated that the single-use plastic shopping bag is one of the leading causes of environmental and socio-economic problems worldwide, which has led to universal calls for use reduction intervention strategies.


There is a need to minimise our plastic use to effectively minimise plastic waste. This means modifying our everyday habits, not using plastic when there is a good alternative and only using plastic when it is strictly necessary. Plastic bags can be reused or used for different purposes. It is necessary to think about how they can be reused before disposing of them .

Education is another critical tool for behavioural improvement by educating people about the environmental and health expense of using plastic bags. We need to raise awareness in communities about poor waste disposal activities. Other actions that can be taken to limit the impact of plastic bags on the environment include taking part in neighbourhood clean-up efforts, voluntarily recycling household waste, avoiding littering and illegal dumping of plastic shopping bags, using eco-friendly materials as an alternative and adopting legislation which would make the use of plastic bags less attractive.


E Carpenter, K Smith, ‘Plastics on the Sargasso Sea surface’, 1972, Science 175: 1240–1241

F Convery, S McDonnell and S Ferreira, ‘The most popular tax in Europe? Lessons from the Irish plastic bags levy’, 2007,  Environmental and Resource Economics, 38: 1–11.

R Hasson, A Leiman, M Visser,’The economics of plastic bag legislation in South Africa’, 2007, South African Journal of Economics, 75: 66–83.

S Katsanevakis, ‘Marine debris, a growing problem: sources, distribution, composition, and impacts’. T Hofer, (Ed.), Marine Pollution. (Nova Science Publishers, 2008), 277–324.

A Md-Jalil, N Md-Mian, M Rahman, ‘Using Plastic Bags and Its Damaging Impact on Environment and Agriculture: An Alternative Proposal’, 2013, International Journal of Learning & Development. 3: 1–14.

C Simmons, ‘It’s in the Bag: An Estimate of the Effect of CO2 Emissions of the Irish Plastic Bag Tax’ (www.bestfootforward.com, 29 June 2017)

A Sivan, ‘New perspectives in plastic biodegradation’, 2011, Current Opinion in Biotechnology 22: 422–426.

T Sugii, Plastic Bag Reduction: Policies to Reduce Environmental Impact (2008).

M Thiel, M Eriksen, N Maximenko, A Cummin, G Lattin, S Wilson, S Rifman, ‘Plastic pollution in the South Pacific subtropical gyre’, 2013, Marine pollution bulletin, 68(2) 71–76.

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