Things One Should Know About Plastic Bags

1/25/2010 Plastic-based materials have become indispensable elements in our life. Qualified as the material of the 21st century, plastics are seen everywhere because of the advantages that they offer, including ease of use, lightness, flexibility, machinability, recyclability, low cost.

Plastics are claimed to be a pollutant for the environment. However, polluting is a result of human actions. We have to take precautions against people who dump plastic bags, bottles and other plastic packaging materials to the sea or the nature and to raise awareness in the society. It is not a proper approach to put the blame on the plastics which are “used without control” and thrown randomly into the environment. All in all, plastics do not belong to the environment and they do not reach the environment by themselves. Individuals must take responsibility for that matter. Therefore it is very important to increase environmental awareness and to give information about the value of recycling… The biggest trouble in our country in this area is the lack of awareness. As a result of this, the wastes are not collected at the source and recycling cannot become widespread. Local governments have major duties in that regard.

Putting the blame on plastics and banning them will not help solve the problem, but will only be a way of ignoring it. The thinking that if we cannot train the public and recycle the plastics, it is best to ban them all will not provide benefits for anyone in the long term.

The figures suggested in relation to the biodegradability of plastics vary between 100 years to 1000 years, with none of the estimates having scientific grounds. The argument that a product which has actually been in use for less than 100 years is retained in the nature for 1000 years without decomposition is enough to prove that these comments are far from being scientific. It is not possible that plastics are retained in soil for a long time without degradation because they are organic substances. They wear out in time and start to decompose into their constituents with the influence of environmental conditions. For instance, it takes a shopping bag only 8 to 10 years to completely decompose in the nature. New technologies have even reduced this period of time to 1 year.

Shopping bags are made of polyethylene. Polyethylene is an organic structure consisting of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Moreover, in recent years, calcium carbonate as a naturally existing mineral is added to polyethylene in order to reduce costs in bag production process. This is the regular chalk or marble powder and is a harmless substance used in chewing gums and toothpastes. When the organic plastic is consumed by the nature, what remains is this inorganic mineral. Microorganisms consume carbon based substances as sources of energy to survive. In environments with oxygen, carbon is biologically oxidised within the cell to be transformed into carbon dioxide. And hydrogen turns into water. Plastics are digested slowly by microorganisms. The additives that are included in the production of food contact plastics are chosen from among substances that are not health-hazard.

We have to particularly underline the fact that plastics are the most environment friendly products with regard to the minimum amount of energy that they consume during production and recycling phases. Plastics that have big advantages from many perspectives also help make significant savings from energy consumed during transportation because they are lightweight. According to a research conducted by Packaging Market Research Institution in Germany, if the packages made of plastic today were actually made of wood, glass, paper, carton or aluminium, the weight of packages and consequently the transportation costs would be 4 times as much. Twice the energy would be needed to produce the packaging and the rubbish volume would be increased by 2.5 times.

According to Canadian Plastics Industry Association, the wastes of all plastic bags in the world constitute less than 1 percent of the total wastes including the cigarette butts that we see around, bottles, cans and food packaging. Plastic bags account for only 25 percent of this 1 percent. On the other hand, one thirds of the rubbish is food wastes and one fourths is paper and similar wastes. This means that plastics are only a source of relative pollution for the environment.

In today’s plastic bags, 70 percent less plastic is used as compared to those made 20 years ago. But in none of the other industries there is so much progress towards the protection of sources by minimisation.

Only 4 percent of the total global crude oil is consumed in order to produce plastics that save from resources and help protect the environment. And only 3 percent of this quantity is used to make PE (Polyethylene) raw material which is an ingredient of plastic bags. However, for example each 100 kg of plastic parts in automobiles reduces the petrol consumption in Europe by 12 million tons and CO2 emissions by 30 million tons per annum. That is, plastics that consume only 4 percent of petrol also help to make savings from the remaining part.

In a research dated 1992, it was revealed that by using plastic packaging American producers make 336 trillion BTU energy savings. This energy is equivalent to 58 million barrels of petrol, 9.2 billion m3 of natural gas or 14.5 million tons of coal.

The Progressive Bag Alliance which is operating in the United States of America made a research to prove that disposable plastic bags are much more environment friendly than paper bags. The related report demonstrates that disposable plastic bag is the material that consumes the least energy and has the least effect on the environment during production, processing and recycling stages.

The report says that the energy consumed during the production of paper bags, which are considered to be alternatives of plastic bags, is 4.5 times the energy consumed by disposable plastic bags; and the energy consumed during the transportation of paper bags is 3 times the energy used when transporting plastic bags. The total energy consumption by paper bags is 73 kWh, but plastic bags use only 14 kWh of energy.

The research reveals that plastic bags generate less solid wastes, which are becoming one of the most important items on global agenda, and therefore they are more environment friendly. In the report, it is stated that 1000 plastic bags make up 4.7 kg solid wastes, but the same number of paper bags make up about 7 times, that is 33.9 kg, solid wastes.

In the report, it is emphasised that greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced and consequently global warming will slow down if disposable plastic bags are preferred to paper bags. Moreover, it is stated that cutting trees in order to make paper bags spoils the balance of ecosystem and adversely affects the environment. The research indicates that, at a time when water resources have become more valuable in the world because of global warming, it has become much more important to prefer disposable plastic bags because plastic bags are produced using much less water. The report says that 1000 pieces of paper bag require 3.785 litres of water, whereas the same number of polyethylene plastic bags require only 30 litres.

We must also consider that environment is damaged by cutting trees and ecological balance is spoiled in order to produce paper bags. Furthermore, cotton or similar products are needed to make cloth bags which are another alternative for plastic bags. As agricultural lands are getting scarcer and water resources are decreasing today, it will not be the correct choice to consume cotton, etc. instead of using an environment-friendly product like plastic which is easily produced, consumes less energy during production and is recyclable. It is very difficult to substitute another material for plastic because of the advantages that the latter offers. For example, it is difficult for you to carry your purchases in a paper or cloth bag under the rain without getting wet.

The modern world has been discussing and adopting the “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” approach which is abbreviated in the form of 3R with regard to plastics and other wastes. We have to use plastics efficiently and recycle them. For example, paper can be recycled for up to 5 times; however, plastic is much more recyclable. Plastics are heated to between 120 and 200°C when melted for recycling, but for aluminium (Alu) this level is 650°C and for glass exactly 1.400°C. As you see, plastics are a kind of material that is both recyclable and requires the least energy during recycling. When considering the life cycle of a product, all stages from production to consumption and recycling must be considered and the whole picture must be viewed on the basis of cost, benefit and environment.

Plastics make major contributions to sustainable development. It helps more and more people to reach high standards of health and living with regard to social progress. The use of plastics is considered to be an indicator of development and is increasing especially in developed countries. There is no question of plastic bags being prohibited in the world and in Europe. They are sold for a price, subjected to tax, and repurchased for a price. These are all aimed at encouraging the people to reuse plastic bags, to use them only as required and then to have them recycled. Today, humanity must use all available resources efficiently. This naturally applies to plastic bags as well.

We think that we have demonstrated by what we have written so far that plastic bags are, contrary to the general belief, an environment-friendly material. We must keep in mind that the problem is not one of plastic material or any other material. We have to use the available material with the maximum benefit principle and make the whole society aware of recycling in order to solve the problem. Giving up plastic bags and putting all the blame on them will only change the dimension of the problem and will never be a part of the solution.

Plastic based bags and other packaging materials are materials that meet the basic requirements, that are economic, are in conformance to health rules and norms (such as FDA, EU Norms, etc.) and that are more environment-friendly as compared to their alternatives because of their very low weight per unit and density.

Naksan Plastik, which is the biggest organisation in the plastic and packaging sector in Turkey and in the neighbouring geography in terms of the capacity and business volume, has been making increasing contributions to the local economy and the consumers’ benefit with its sensitive and rigorous R&D and innovation work in all of the subjects mentioned above.

We kindly present the situation to your information.

Sincerely yours.

Things One Should Know About Plastic Bags