On the long, long life of a plastic bag

Waste collection point in Nima, Accra, Ghana.

I stumbled upon this greatly thought-provoking video on the longevity of plastic shopping bags (“rubbers”), pollution and environmental impacts. The video, aptly titled Plastic Bag, is a short biography; for 18 minutes, viewers see plastic bags from their own perspective, and we follow one’s journey from its first use (just after conception) to…well, not death, because most plastic bags like this one aren’t biodegradable. The video episode is one of a number produced by FutureStates, a television “series of independent mini-features [that] explores possible future scenarios through the prism of today’s global realities.”

My takeaway: the durability and longevity of plastic bags (given it takes about 500 to 1000 years for one to disintegrate) can be its greatest curse. It can even outweigh its convenience; it’s a compelling moment when the plastic bag itself says it would like to tell its maker, “I wish you had created me so that I could die.”

Because after its one, two or even a few uses, what’s the likely fate of a plastic bag? We may not think about them again, but that certainly doesn’t mean they just go away.

In Accra, the sight of plastic bags — discarded water satchets and black rubber bags — is a common one. Research and news reports demonstrate that this has been an increasing issue for African cities, especially in recent years; one example is Nairobi, Kenya, where one research article estimates 24 million plastic bags are produced annually. After usually one use, you’ll see these discarded plastic items in gutters, strewn along sidewalks, in mounting heaps. If you come out early each morning in Accra, you may come across Zoom Lion employees, suited in their blue uniforms and bright orange jackets, sweeping major streets and walkways; in my neighborhood, they also pick up some of these discarded plastic items.

One of the first challenges is the level of production and usage. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that four to five trillion plastic bags are manufactured each year.  These plastic bags, especially the black rubbers have become ubiquitous because of their convenience and inexpensiveness. Street vendors pack everything from on-the-go foods (e.g., fried yams, roasted plantains) to smaller and medium-sized purchases in these bags.

Proper disposal is also a key issue (that article I just cited above estimated that only one percent of plastic items such as bags are actually recycled). A few street wastebins on major streets have separate bins for organic trash and plastics items. In the end, from public or household waste collection, the trash has to go somewhere.

While much of it ends up in these types of landfills, many more end up strewn along the road, on the ground, and in drains, eventually blocking sewage disposal, and leeching toxic chemicals and colorants into the ground:

Garbage dump as plastic wasteland, located in Accra, Ghana

A Plastic-less Future
Looking at the photo above, it’s clear that we need to identify ways to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics to as to protect our environment. Already here, people purchase medium-end, designed plastic bags and using them continually for a variety of purposes. The bags sport fancy designs or sayings, and in Accra, they usually run for about 40 pesewas. In addition, while many stores continue to provide plastic shopping bags for purchased items, some of the larger-scale stores are now also offering reusable bags. While it’s still not clear the extent to which these reusable bags are being purchased, it’s important to recognize this new option for customers, especially for a public that seems to be growing more and more environmentally conscious (if still only at a very low level).

There have been a few newsworthy initiatives proposed at recycling in Accra; in 2001, a Swedish government initiative aimed at turning used plastic into rubber shoes; in 2008, a Ghanaian-Dutch collaboration aimed at creating a plastic recycling plant; but I still have no idea where I can drop off my used plastic bottles and bags to get them recycled (I look forward to hearing and sharing this info with others if anyone has it).

One company, Trashy Bags, has grown successful on the idea of reusing plastic bags and turning them into valuable items — coin purses, totes, computer bags and more (and they’ve gotten a lot of positive press). The business is also interesting in employing and building the capacity of local Ghanaian staff. That said, one observation I’ve had is that  it does seem to appeal and be patronized mostly by non-Ghanaians, likely due to a wider cultural notion against sporting secondhand items.   

Even if we can’t create a completely plastic-less future, at least we can try to achieve a future with less plastic waste in it. The question is how…


  1. Great piece. A very insightful video as well. We need a very strong and determined front to deal with our sanitation.

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