The fight to ban the use of plastic bags outright in commercial purchases has finally come to the Americas. Chile, a South American nation that consumes and disposes of an estimated 3.4 million plastic bags per year, has passed legislation giving large retailers and supermarkets six months to ban plastic bags from stores.

"We have taken a fundamental step to take better care of Chile and the planet," Chilean President Sebastián Piñera wrote on Twitter. "Today we are more prepared to leave a better planet to our children, grandchildren and the generations to come."

Chile's commitment to eliminating plastic bags comes as the United Nations has declared the issue the central focus of World Environment Day on June 5th. According to the U.N., more than 60 nations are currently engaged in addressing plastic bag consumption, with levies or bans proving the most effective measures. In a new report titled "Single-use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability," the organization encourages officials worldwide to keep the momentum against plastics pollution with improved waste management, eco-friendly alternatives, education and voluntary reduction strategies.

"The assessment shows that action can be painless and profitable – with huge gains for people and the planet that help avert the costly downstream costs of pollution," said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, in the report's foreword.

Plastic bottles, bags, and trash was ashore a beach in Colon, Panama Plastic bottles, bags and trash was ashore a beach in Colon, Panama. (Photo: Fotos593/Shutterstock)

Daily news points to epidemic

In a stark warning that shows just how large a problem plastic pollution has become, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres recently warned that without sweeping action worldwide, by 2050 there will be more pieces of plastic in the sea than fish.

"Plastic pollution has become an epidemic," the agency writes. "Every year, we throw away enough plastic to circle the Earth four times. Much of that waste doesn't make it into a landfill, but instead ends up in our oceans, where it's responsible for killing one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year. For the good of the planet, it's time to rethink how we use plastic."

While such grim predictions and estimated seem steeped in hyperbole, the daily news cycle of horrific discoveries in the world's oceans offer credence. Earlier this week, a stricken whale in Thailand under the care of veterinarians and volunteers began vomiting plastic bags. After it passed away, an autopsy revealed more than 80 bags in the whale's stomach.

"We can't help her," marine biologist Thon Thamrongnawasawat said on Facebook. "No one can help a pilot whale with 8 kilograms of plastic bag in (its) stomach."

This species of whale, used to feeding on jellyfish and squid, may instead encounter these deadly lookalikes, as diver Richard Horner captured off Bali in March:

Even as researchers peer for the first time at some of the ocean's deepest, unexplored regions, they are seeing plastic bags floating in the abyss. In May, scientists studying the seabed of the Mariana Trench, the world's deepest spot at 36,000 feet, came across a plastic bag, one of 3,000 pieces of garbage dating back some 30 years. That discovery comes on the heels of a study in 2017 that found 100 percent of animals recovered from the Mariana Trench had ingested plastic.

"The results were both immediate and startling," team leader Dr. Alan Jamieson said. "This type of work requires a great deal of contamination control, but there were instances where the fibers could actually be seen in the stomach contents as they were being removed."

As for personal action on plastic bags, the U.N. offers this handy reminder: "If you can't reuse it, refuse it."

"Plastic isn't the problem," Solheim added. "It's what we do with it."

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

Chile joins worldwide push to ban plastic bags
The South American nation joins 50 other countries taking steps to reduce plastic waste and pollution.