The problem of single-use plastic bags in world where every piece of plastic ever produced still exists

ST. GEORGE — A recent inquiry and reader-submitted photos depicting an overuse of plastic shopping bags for an online grocery order prompted St. George News to take a closer look at the issue of not only single-use bags but plastics in general, as well as how — or if — retailers are trying to address the problem.

Photo depicting number of plastic shopping bags used in online order processed at Walmart in Cedar City, Utah, June 16, 2021 | Reader-submitted photo, St. George News / Cedar City News | Click to enlarge

The photos showed 31 grocery items purchased online from the Cedar City Walmart that had been bagged in 17 separate plastic single-use bags, which the reader wrote was very concerning at a time when efforts are underway across the globe to reduce the use of plastic for the sake of the environment.

The reader stated that over a couple months of using the store’s online shopping service and seeing the issue numerous times, they had both contacted the local store and filled out online surveys attached to their orders on more than one occasion but had seen no change to a retail process they called “wasteful” and “irresponsible,” especially at a time when Walmart had restricted customers’ use of personal reusable bags.

In order to determine if the photos represented an isolated incident or if other readers had similar experiences, they were posted on the Facebook pages for both St. George News and Cedar City News.

Several commenters stated they had seen the same thing, particularly on the Cedar City News Facebook post. However, several people said it wasn’t specific to the Cedar City Walmart.

“Once I got a bag with only 4 packets of koolaid (the little ones) while I had also ordered chips, bread, and many other items that would have been wonderful for those koolaid packets to go with,” the commenter said. “It’s a Walmart issue, not only a location issue.”

Another woman responded to say: “This has happened every time I go. This past week had 56 items. 3 bags had 3 different items and every other was in just 1 bag per item. Inconvenient and a waste of bags.”

Photo depicting number of plastic shopping bags used in online order processed at Walmart in Cedar City, Utah, June 16, 2021 | Reader-submitted photo, St. George News, Cedar City News

“Yes, every time,” another commenter wrote. “Often 1-2 items per bag. I’m sure it had something to do with the way they collect the items from around the store, but the amount of bags used really is ridiculous.”

While one commenter and former Walmart employee mentioned cross-contamination of perishables as a possible reason, another person stated it was indeed part of the collection process.

“The main reason for this is each (Walmart employee) shopper gets a department for the store. So multiple people are filling every order. Say they’re in dry goods department and you only ordered one thing, or 4 packets of kool-aid, that shopper puts your items in a bag and in its own tote. I personally saw this all the time! If one person was shopping for each order it would be different but each shopper gets assigned a department and shops for 8 different orders at once. Just some insight on the reality of it.”

While the photos served to show that online ordering can lead to a superfluous number of plastic shopping bags, the inquiry itself prompted St. George News to take a closer look at the the use of plastics in many forms, the massive footprint these innovative items of convenience have left across the globe and what steps retailers are taking to address the issue if they are going to continue offering a service such as online ordering.

The launch of the plastic shopping bag

Plastic shopping bags were first introduced in the U.S. in 1977 as an alternative to paper bags. According to the Grocery Industry Committee on Solid Waste, plastic bags cost less than a penny each, while paper bags cost 4-5 times as much, and plastic bags now account for 4 out of every 5 bags handed out at grocery stores, a number which can add up when single purchased items are each receiving one bag.

Stock image of plastic film used during plastic bag production | St. George News

The Center for Biological Diversity cited a 2018 National Geographic study that showed Americans use a massive number of plastic bags each year – more than 365 of them for each person living in the U.S. – when compared to Denmark, which uses an average of four bags per person each year.

Another location on the opposite end of the spectrum is Kamikatsu, a small town of approximately 1,500 residents situated 660 miles southwest of Tokyo in Japan.

Considered a “waste-free” town, Kamikatsu enacted changes in 2003 that have since resulted in the city achieving an 80% recycle rate by stopping waste collection services. Instead, residents are tasked with bringing various waste resources to garbage stations where they are sorted into 45 different categories and recycled. The town expects to be completely “waste free” by 2022, the Kamitkatsu Zero Waste Center says.

The dark side of plastics 

While plastics have revolutionized medicine with life-saving devices and made space travel possible, and they are used to manufacture incubators and equipment for clean drinking water, as well as making cars and jets lighter and more fuel efficient, there is also a dark side to plastics that is far-reaching and potentially catastrophic.

Recycling efforts have failed to keep up with the exponential increases in plastic production – which has grown to nearly half a billion tons per year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Globally, at least one trillion bags are used each year, and each bag has an average lifespan of roughly 12 minutes – a dismal number considering it can take up to 1,000 years for the thin plastic bag to decompose in a landfill.

Stock image | Photo by Andriy Nekrasov/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

However, the problem with plastic lies in the fact that even after 1,000 years, the remnants will still be around since the ingredients do not break down completely. Instead, the materials photo-degrade, meaning they become microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment by leaching those toxins into the soils that impair the growth of the world’s most important microorganisms, prochlorococcus, a marine bacterium that provides 10% of the world’s oxygen.

In other words, the Environmental Protection Agency says, “every piece of plastic ever produced still exists.”

Additionally, despite commenters on the Facebook posts saying to just recycle the plastic bags, the reality is that approximately 60% of all plastic used in the U.S. ends up in landfills and also in the oceans, where it can remain for thousands of years, transforming into those microplastics.

Today, more than 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year – which is the equivalent to the weight of nearly the entire human population.

Billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences that make up about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces, and studies estimate there are now 15 trillion-51 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans – so much so, in fact, there is not a single square mile of surface ocean left, anywhere on the planet, that is now devoid of any plastic pollution.

Stock image | Photo by Rich Carey/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

In addition to prochlorococcus, other of Earth’s marine life is paying the price. More than one-third of all leatherback sea turtles that die have ingested plastic, as it is nearly impossible for them to distinguish between a jellyfish and a floating plastic bag, the study conducted by the Biological Diversity Center found.

Dead seabirds are often found with stomachs full of plastic, so much that they die of starvation, and fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000-24,000 tons of plastic each year.

The ill effects inherent in plastics are not confined to pollution in the seas and landfills across the U.S. and the globe. In fact, scientists have found that on average, it is estimated that people consume the equivalent of a credit card of plastic every week, and with a 20% increase in plastic production expected over the next decade, the problem is only getting worse.

Environment and change 

It is well known that the world has a plastic pollution problem that is snowballing – but so is public awareness and action, according to National Geographic.

It also appears the largest retailers in the country are stepping up to the plate to address the problem.

One such retailer, the Kroger Company, which includes Smiths, Fred Meyer, Food4Less and other retailers, announced in the summer of 2018 that it would be eliminating plastic bags from its stores by 2025. One Kroger chain, QFC, moved even more quickly and eliminated the use of plastic bags by the end of March 2019.

Plastics in landfills, locatoin, date not specified | Photo courtesy of PRI-The, St. George News

Overall, the company uses more than six billion plastic bags each year, according to Supermarket News. 

The company also launched the “Zero Hero” campaign, as part of the Zero Hunger/Zero Waste Foundation, which recognizes efforts committed to eliminating hunger across the nation by supporting donation initiatives, as well as reducing waste by implementing recycling programs.  Last year, the company diverted more than 80% of the waste that would have gone to the landfill.

Kroger Foundation’s Jessica Adelman said that 40% of all food produced in the U.S. is thrown away everyday, while 1 in 8 people go to bed hungry every night, she said.

Through the company’s efforts, Kroger associates rescued 90 million pounds of healthy food from its stores, food processing plants and distribution centers through its Zero Hunger/Zero waste program last year, which allowed the company to donate more than 300 million meals across the country and send less waste to landfills.

States are also taking action to reduce the pollution left in the wake of plastic shopping bag use. In fact, eight states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont, have banned the use of plastic single-use shopping bags.

Each state also requires a 10-cent minimum charge for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags and compostable bags at certain locations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, on the other end of the spectrum, 11 states have enacted laws to prohibit local governments from regulating single-use plastic bags.

As to Walmart, when St. George News received the original reader-submitted post and photos, they were sent to Tyler Thomason, public spokesperson for Walmart. Thomason said the company is committed to reducing plastic waste, but he countered the photos by saying they appeared to be staged, since the items were positioned outside of each of the bags.

He went on to say he contacted the Cedar City Walmart shortly after receiving the photos to inquire about the claims and said the store reported that an influx of plastic shopping bags were not being used in the processing online orders.

Stock image | Photo by Recycleman/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

St. George News reached out to Thomason for comment again after posting the photos on Facebook and receiving numerous comments saying it was actually happening to see if there were plans to make the retailers online order process less wasteful, but the request for additional comment went unanswered.

However, consistent with Thomason’s original comment, the retail giant obviously recognizes that plastic is a concern, as Walmart announced a set of plastic waste reduction goals in February 2019 that include a change in packaging standards as well as a number of steps being taken to make it easier for consumers to recycle.

One of those goals was to make of all of the company’s private brand packaging from 100% recyclable materials by 2025, and in one year alone, the company diverted more than 80% of waste associated with unsold products, packaging and other waste materials from landfills across the U.S.

From legislators to average consumers, it’s a question of choice

Numerous studies have shown that recycling efforts cannot keep up with the amount of plastic discarded each day, but retailers and state legislatures have enormous power to address waste from single-use plastics.

One woman who had similar experiences to the reader who submitted the photos offered a possible solution: “I’d love it if they could figure a way to use re-usable bags (like a rent/return thing), or maybe if I bring crates they could just load it into my crates instead of using any bags?”

However, several commenters on the Facebook posts also referred to the power of the consumer choice, and one person suggested a more drastic solution: Stop using the online ordering service entirely.

“I stopped using pickup for this reason!! There is no reason that one item needs its own bag.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!