Paper or Plastic?

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A short essay on the impact of plastic bags on water usage.

Submitted: December 03, 2016

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Submitted: December 03, 2016

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When I hear the question, “Paper or plastic?” checking out at the grocery store, I normally answer plastic, out of convenience. Plastic bags are easier to carry than paper bags and are usually packed lighter. Still, I know that plastic bags are bad for the environment—they clog waterways and endanger wildlife—but I figure that because I hoard them and reuse them from time to time, I was being a good green citizen and helping the environment a little. After a few Google searches, however, I learned I was wrong.

It turns out that the production of plastic bags is as bad for the environment as throwing them away. Plastic bags are made from polymers, which are long chains of hydrocarbons and are a by-product of oil refining. As a result, they account for about 4% of global oil usage every year. These polymers come in small pellets that have to be melted in order to make plastic bags. The melting process requires electricity, which more than half of the time comes from coal-fired power plants. This process of generating energy uses large amounts of water. Not only are plastic bags made from a nonrenewable resource but also require a crucial diminishing resource, water.

The water crisis is a large and immediate one. We consume water every day, for domestic uses like showering and cooking, but mostly for agriculture and producing the food we eat. It is easy to turn on the faucet in your kitchen and get running water. However, in other parts of the world, there are people who have fought in wars over water, and others that have to walk miles to simply reach a source of water. The problem is not that fresh, potable water is disappearing, it is that it becomes ever harder to obtain safe water with the growing global population. There is an increase in demand that the supply of water cannot keep up with.

As a society, we need to reduce our water footprint, but we cannot change unless individuals begin the change. There are countless ways to reduce our personal water footprints, but here is a simple one: decrease our use of plastic bags. It is a small change, and by itself will definitely not solve the water crisis, but it is a place to start.

Start by using reusable bags whenever you can. Buy a few and use them for your weekly grocery shopping or a quick trip to the store. Keep them in your car or by the door, so you won’t forget them. I understand that may be unreasonable for some people to completely cut plastic bags out of their life, so when they do get a plastic bag, it is important to reuse it instead of throwing it away.

Plastic bags can be recycled. They can be made into more plastic bags and even goods like yarn or shoes. However, more water is required to recycle them, which doesn’t help decrease our water footprint. It is necessary to reuse plastic bags when you have them, but better to avoid getting them in the first place. Plastic bags can be reused at the store multiple times before they run out of use. Despite their convenience, we have to challenge ourselves to find reasonable biodegradable substitutes.

It doesn’t stop at plastic bags, either. You can reduce your use of plastic in general by making water-smart choices. Instead of buying sandwich bags to pack your lunch in, use Tupperware, a reusable option. When you go to buy chips, instead of buying the bags of individually packed servings, buy a regular bag and measure out portions from there (this should also apply to other foods that you can buy individually wrapped, but I realize things like granola bars are hard to find unwrapped). Most importantly, instead of buying water in a single-use plastic bottle, buy a reusable water bottle. It is not only good for the planet but will save you money in the long run.

There are fewer things people hate more than change, although this is exactly what I am asking you to do. That is the only way our society can begin to change for the better. Being truly water conscious is a daunting task. It is not something that can or will happen overnight. It is the result of small changes in our everyday habits and can start with simply lessening our use of plastic bags, and plastic in general. Individually, this small change may seem insignificant, but multiplied by millions of people, the impact becomes significant. Next time you go to the store, not only bring your reusable bags but try to notice the amount of plastic you consume on a daily basis and how you could potentially reduce it. Every bit counts.

 

 

If you would like to learn more about plastic bag use or the global water crisis, you can check out the following websites:

 

Environmental Impact of Shopping Bags: https://www.reusethisbag.com/articles/plastic-shopping-bags-environmental-impact.php

Paper or Plastic Bags?: http://www.treehugger.com/culture/paper-bags-or-plastic-bags-everything-you-need-to-know/page3.html

Effect of Plastic Bags on the Environment: http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/14901/1/The-Effects-of-Plastic-Bags-on-Environment.html

Calculate your Water Footprint: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/ freshwater/change-the-course/water-footprint-calculator/

The Water Crisis: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/ freshwater-crisis/

The Water Project: https://thewaterproject.org/water-scarcity/

 


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