Experts say that the damage they have caused to the ecosystem and human health is indisputable and call for attention to be paid to the alternatives that are chosen to replace them.

Every July 3 is commemorated as International Plastic Bag Free Day, a date that seeks to reduce consumption of plastic bags and raise awareness of the serious environmental problem they represent. Although more and more regulations are limiting its delivery and use, the fact is that this product, whose useful life does not exceed 30 minutes and can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, is still present. According to recent estimates, around five trillion plastic bags are used each year and more than 60% end up in oceans and landfills.

For Natalia Conejero, director of the School of Civil Engineering at the Universidad Bernardo O’Higgins, the damage they have caused is indisputable and can be seen in the contamination of the soil, oceans, rivers, food chain, greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on terrestrial life. “In addition, the plastic used in the bags may contain additives and chemicals that end up affecting people’s health. Another key factor is the way they contaminate drinking water by decomposing into smaller fragments such as microplastics,” she says.

A growing number of countries around the world are introducing regulations to combat them, Bangladesh was a pioneer in doing so in 2002 and Chile was the first Latin American nation to enact a law to phase out their use in trade, establishing fines and penalties. Almost 5 years have passed since that milestone and, according to data from the Ministry of the Environment, the delivery of 5 billion units was avoided in the first 24 months alone. Although these policies are a step forward, specialists warn that it is essential to pay attention to the alternatives that are chosen to replace this popular format. In the case of paper, for example, its production pollutes the atmosphere about 70% more than the same process for a plastic product. Along the same lines, a study in Denmark estimated that a cotton bag would have to be used more than 7,000 times to be truly more sustainable than a conventional plastic bag.

On this path to finding solutions, innovation plays a key role. In fact, a recent United Nations report, which defined a series of measures to combat single-use plastics, recommended the use of new materials as this could contribute to a 17% reduction in plastic pollution. “Bioplastics are a good option because they have the great advantage of maintaining the versatility and functionality of plastic, without its harmful effects. This is because they are made from plants or other biological materials, not petroleum. The challenge, in this case, is to educate the public so that they know how to identify them, use them in a good way, and carry out the complete cycle so that the waste is managed in an appropriate manner,” says Rodrigo Sandoval, CEO of
I Am Not Plastic
a national venture that offers 100% compostable, reusable, airtight garbage bags and pet waste bags. In this regard, Sandoval says that all his products biodegrade in 180 days instead of 500 years “if the proper composting process is carried out, where microorganisms such as fungi or bacteria feed on the material in the bag, converting it into water, biomass (humus), mineral salts and carbon dioxide”.

As for projections, Conejeros emphasized that it is urgent to make a change, the most important thing being to foster a true recycling culture and promote sustainable options: “Plastic consumption has generated significant effects on our planet. The oceans in particular have suffered great damage as a result of the waste derived from plastic bags, causing the death of various species and alterations to the ecosystem.