Literature Review: Plastic Bags and Planning the Protection of our Seas

In 1915, the poet Margaret Postgate Cole wrote about brown leaves and a wind that “whirled them whistling to the sky” (Cole, 1915). Just less than a century later, the pop artist Katy Perry envisions another object caught in the wind. In her song, “Firework,” Perry croons, “do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?” (Perry, 2010). This contrast reflects the humanity’s growing reliance upon plastic, and in particular, the plastic bag. Since its introduction in the 1970s, the plastic bag has become widespread, with ⅘ bags used in grocery stores being plastic (Roach, 2003). The goal of this paper is to examine the role of plastic bag marine pollution, the cultural norms surrounding bag usage, the failures of plastic bag alternatives, and the potential benefits of a plastic bag ban within the Davidson community. If Davidson College bans plastic bags at its bookstore and dining halls, the sources we have reviewed suggest that it will have a significant impact on the amount of waste and litter that Davidson students produce.

Before instituting a ban on plastic bags, we must examine why a ban is necessary and the negative impacts they have on marine ecosystems. Per Vince and Hardesty (2017), about 6-17 million tons of plastic enters the oceans every year. Nearly 700 species have been known to interact with these plastics, including plastic bags, and have been linked to having lethal effects on vertebrates to zooplankton (Weisman, 2007) (Vince and Hardesty, 2017). Weisman (2009) recounts a story of fulmar birds washing up on the shores of the North Sea. In 95% of the carcasses, about 44 pieces of plastic could be found in each body. Even when properly recycled, plastic bags still manage to make their way as litter because of their flimsy nature that allows them to be easily picked up by the wind (Roach, 2003).

Another important factor to consider is the role plastic bags have come to occupy in daily life. Although plastic bags were originally unpopular when they were introduced, shopping without a plastic bag today is almost inconceivable (Li et al., 2017). There is agreement within the field that cultural norms present a major obstacle to banning plastic bags. The research by Yeow, Dean, and Tucker (2014) explores the resistance to refraining from plastic bags within the UK, even though the idea that using plastic bags is unethical is a widely accepted belief, which they term as an “attitude-behavior gap” (Yeow et al., 2014).

There are other alternatives that individuals have also proposed in place of plastic bags. These alternatives include paper and biodegradable bags, although negative environmental impacts are still associated with their usage. Per Taylor and Villas-Boas (2016), paper bags require more energy to produce than plastic bags. Paper bags also produce 50x more water pollutants in production, are heavier, and take up more space in landfills. By replacing one type of disposable bag for another, we are simply shifting environmental costs around, but ultimately still negatively impacting the environment. They also found that taxing plastic bag usage was only effective when reusable alternatives were provided as a cheap replacement option (Taylor et al., 2016). The articles written by both Stern (2007) and Weisman (2007), and the research conducted by Runjic-Sokele & Baric (2009), also address the potential of biodegradable bags by taking a constructionist approach in their analysis of the term “biodegradable.” Each article notes that biodegradable bags may not decompose in the natural environment, but instead require specific circumstances which are sometimes only achieved in industrial compost plants. Because of this, biodegradable bags which do not decompose pose the same issues to wildlife that plastic bags do, and, in combination with their high cost, are not a viable replacement for single-use plastic bags (Stern, 2007).

A disagreement within the field is whether plastic bags are actually a major contributor to litter, or whether they are just the most visible; Rujnic-Sokele et. al (2009) argues that there are more important sources of pollution for environmentalists to target. One limitation of this review is that it fails to include a source which discusses another potential disagreement in the field, whether economists who oppose bans in general would oppose a plastic bag ban.

Resources available on the EPA’s website list ways that can help colleges like Davidson reduce the number of plastic bags used on campus and guide students into completely banning them all together (EPA, 2017). Not only this, but there are many already existing frameworks introducing a bag ban. This paper relies on several sources that list many successful bans from legislation that was introduced from the bottom-up in small towns (Transition Wayland, 2017), cities, district and state-wide (Li and Richter, 2015). The EPA provides a guidebook on how to ban disposable plastics specifically in universities, a guidebook which has allowed campuses at UC Santa Barbara, UC San Francisco, and UC San Diego to go plastic bag free (EPA, 2017). The researchers of this article believe that a plastic bag ban would be effective at a school like Davidson and that implementation could provide a significant decrease in the amount of plastic waste the college produces and the overall impact on the planet.



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(February 9, 2018).

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Affecting Legislation on Plastic Bags in the USA.” Waste Management & Research;
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Perry, Katy. “Katy Perry – Firework Lyrics.” SongLyrics.

Roach, John. 2003. “Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?” National Geographic

(February 9, 2018).

Rujnic-Sokele, Maja, and Gordana Baric. 2014. “Life Cycle of Polyethylene Bag.” Annals of the
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Weisman, Alan. “Polymers Are Forever.” Orion Magazine.
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Ethical Consumerism.” Journal of Business Ethics 125(1): 87–99.

Contributor: Charlotte Smith

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