|Who and what are the drivers of change?
|What is happening?
|What can be done?
|How to get it done?
|Plastic bag manufactures
|Massive quantities of plastic bags are being manufactured yearly only to be used by people for a short period of time. Then, because these bags were not properly disposed of, it ends up in the natural environment, for example oceans, and has severe negative impacts.
|Using reusable/biodegradable shopping/bin bags(eco bags)
Reduce bag purchasing
Banning plastic bags
|Educate people through media
Getting involved in clean-up groups
One of the major issues plaguing our environment in recent years is the pollution caused by plastic shopping bags. Disposable plastic shopping bags are a source of everyday convenience for consumers (Plastic Shopping Bags and Environmental Impact [sa]); they are present in almost every grocery store. It is something one pays for and something one tends to immediately discard as soon as the groceries have been unloaded, with the exception of one or two bags that will later be used as dustbin-lining (Plastic Shopping Bags and Environmental Impact [sa]). Most people do not even think about the fact that they have paid for each of these bags, and further typically do not consider the process involved in the making of these bags. An assumption exists that it is an inexpensive and quick product to manufacture (Plastic Shopping Bags and Environmental Impact [sa]). While plastic bags are convenient for consumers, it most certainly is not convenient for the environment.
This blog post aims to provide an analysis of the pollution of plastic bags from an Environmental Humanities perspective. It will do this by using the work of Poul Holm et al., namely, Humanities for the Environment—A Manifesto for Research and Action, Reporting on Rhinos Analysis of the Newspaper Coverage of Rhino Poaching, by Shelby Grant and Mary Lawhon, as well as numerous media articles that centre on the topic of plastic bag pollution. This analysis will consist of an overview of the environmental issue at hand, followed by the answering of the following questions:
- Do the drivers for change relate to the “Great Acceleration” of human technologies, powers and consumption?
- How does the absence or presence of solutions relate to “The New Human Condition”?
- Do the proposed solutions engage with the business / corporate sector?
- Do the proposed solutions and the means to do it stem from collaborative processes of research, stakeholder engagement and public participation?
- Are the solutions translated into practical means that can easily be achieved by the public?
Disposable plastic bags have become such a fixed part of people’s daily lives that it is often viewed as indispensable. Plastic bags were designed to be durable and long-lasting; why then do most people throw them away after only one use? (McLellan 2014). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, around five hundred billion and one trillion disposable bags are used each year. A plastic bag can remain in oceans and landfills for thousands of years (Plastic Shopping Bags and Environmental Impact [sa]). It is then a shocking realisation to make upon discovering the average amount of time that these bags are actually used: only about 12 minutes (Plastic Shopping Bags and Environmental Impact [sa]). People further do not dispose of these bags in appropriate ways, and they consequently end up in the ocean and in landfills. Around ninety-six percent of used plastic bags end up in landfills (McLellan 2014).
Do the drivers for change relate to the “Great Acceleration” of human technologies, powers and consumption?
The Humanities for the Environment—A Manifesto for Research and Action discusses the “Great Acceleration” as follows:
Historical investigations have identified a “Great Acceleration” of human technologies, powers and consumption in the last 70 years that has operated as a key driver of Global Change. These human advances have come with an alteration of the planet’s carbon and nitrogen cycles, rapidly rising species extinction rates, and the generation of atmospheric greenhouse gases, which in turn are catalysts for adverse weather patterns and increased ocean acidification, the consequences of which will condition life on the planet for centuries to come (Holm 2015: 980).
There are many drivers that influence the pollution of plastic bags. According to Kimberly Amaral in Plastics in Our Oceans ([sa]), H. McLellan in Banning the Plastic Shopping Bag in South Africa – An Idea Whose Time has Come (2014) and “Reuse This Bag” in Plastic Shopping Bags and Environmental Impact ([sa]), the drivers that are mostly responsible for this are consumption and improper disposal of plastic bags. When one considers these drivers, one can easily relate them to the “Great Acceleration”. People consume at alarming rates, and most companies, in this case petroleum and plastic companies, prefer it this way because it is profitable (Beth 2015). Money is a key driving force in the production of goods, and having and making money is often enmeshed with the attainment of power. People tend to be more likely to “overlook” environmental ills if it would be to their best interest to do so. As for the proper disposal of plastic bags, people are unlikely to put in a great amount of effort into something that might only benefit them later. Because of the “Great Acceleration”, specifically in terms of technology, people have become accustomed to relying on automated processes that require little to no input on their part, which has become problematic in the sense that an active interest and more physical effort is required to overcome challenges faced by the environment.
How does the absence or presence of solutions relate to “The New Human Condition”?
According to Humanities for the Environment—A Manifesto for Research and Action, “The New Human Condition” refers to how people react and handle the consequences and the responsibilities of being key drivers in the global change (Holm 2015:983). People have the choice between getting involved and ignoring environmental issues, and oftentimes people tend to ignore them.
Mass media plays an important role in how people react to their world. When the media shifts its focus to something, people tend to shift their focus to the same thing. This is not necessarily a negative phenomenon, but the problem lies in the fact that the media generally focusses on events, rather than lingering problems (Grant & Lawhon 2014:41-42). Pollution can definitely be considered as a lingering problem, but one that has become seemingly stale and unappealing to the interest of the masses. This is related to the “New Human Condition”. There are solutions available for this environmental issue, like proper disposal or the use of alternatives, but people seem to have become desensitised to the long-lasting effects of the problem at hand, and it has become easy to ignore or disregard (Grant & Lawhon 2014:41-42).
Do the proposed solutions engage with the business / corporate sector?
Solutions proposed by Kimberly Amaral, in Plastics in Our Oceans ([sa]), are directed at the general public, and include things that people can do as individuals to aid the problem; things such as looking for alternative material or avoiding excessive packaging, recycling, educating others and getting involved in clean-up groups. Amaral also includes solutions that are being utilised by plastic manufacturers, namely exploring “degradable” plastics. H. McLallan (2014) also proposes solutions that involve the general public. McLellan (2014) proposes solutions that centre around refraining from the use of plastic bags completely.
“Reuse This Bag” (2016) proposes solutions that can engage with the business/corporate sector; namely, switching to reusable bags or offering discounts to customers who use reusable bags. These two solutions can be incorporated into retail businesses. Although Amaral and McLellan’s solutions are directed at the general public, they are also applicable to corporate companies.
Do the proposed solutions and means to do it stem from collaborative processes of research, stakeholder engagement and public participation?
The solutions proposed by McLellan (2014) stem from collaborative processes and public participation. McLellan offers statistical information as well as information about organisations erected with the purpose of improving the plastic bag environmental situation – like the “Rethink the Bag” campaign. Solutions proposed in Plastics in Our Oceans by Kimberly Amaral ([sa]) stem from public participation. Amaral represents the “Sea Education Association” that is trying to educate the general public about the environmental issue, as well as entice people to get involved. “Reuse This Bag”(2016) proposes solutions that involve bigger organisations’ help to fight this environmental issue.
Are the solutions translated into practical means that can easily be achieved by the public?
Solutions that were given by “Reuse This Bag”(2016), Kimberly Amaral([sa]), Mary Beth(2015) and H. McLellan(2014), can all be translated into practical means that can easily be achieved by the public (all their solutions are able to function in parallel), because they centre around the simple things that individuals can do at home aid in solving the problem.
This blog post aimed to provide an Environmental Humanities analysis of the pollution of plastic bags by using the works of Poul Holm et al. namely, Humanities for the Environment—A Manifesto for Research and Action, Reporting on Rhinos Analysis of the Newspaper Coverage of Rhino Poaching, by Shelby Grant and Mary Lawhon, as well as numerous media articles that centre on the topic of plastic bag pollution.
Disposable plastic bags are manufactured and used in massive volumes each year, and each year the environment suffers a bit more because of improper disposal and excessive plastic bag usage. It is clear that the people of South Africa need to be educated properly about the effects that this issue has on wildlife and on the natural environment. Perhaps awareness campaigns need to rethink the way in which information is translated to the public, because, as things currently stand, it is easy to ignore the problem. Social media may be a good avenue to create and improve awareness and to get people involved, but thus far it has not been working as effectively as one might think. Solutions need to be actionable and have meaningful consequences in order to make any real difference.
To join the conversation on environmental conservation, follow the hashtag #DigEcoAction.
Grant, S & Lawhon, M. 2014. Reporting on rhinos: analysis of the newspaper coverage of rhino poaching. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education 30:39-52.
Holm, P et al. 2015. Humanities for the Environment—A manifesto for research and action. Humanities 4:977–992.
Plastic Shopping Bags and Environmental Impact. 2016. [O]. Available:
Accessed 27 March 2016.
McLellan, H. 2014. Banning the Plastic Shopping Bag in South Africa – An Idea Whose Time has Come. [O]. Available:
Accessed 30 March 2016.
Amaral, K. [sa]. Plastics in Our Oceans. [O]. Available:
Accessed 27 March 2016.
Beth, M. 2015. What’s in the plastic bag? [O]. Available:
Accessed 1 April 2016.