Saving our planet; one bag at a time

February 3, 2009

Amazing fact: There are still people who think plastic bags are okay

Over one billion single-use plastic bags are given out for free each day. Free? The term is misleading. To understand the real costs, we must consider the “cradle to grave” multiple impacts and the effects of each phase of a bag’s life.

Phase 1: Production Costs

* The production of plastic bags requires petroleum and often natural gas, both non-renewable resources that increase our dependency on foreign suppliers. Additionally, prospecting and drilling for these resources contributes to the destruction of fragile habitats and ecosystems around the world.

* The toxic chemical ingredients needed to make plastic produces pollution during the manufacturing process.

* The energy needed to manufacture and transport disposable bags eats up more resources and creates global warming emissions.
Phase 2: Consumption Costs

* Annual cost to US retailers alone is estimated at $4 billion.

* When retailers give away free bags, their costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.
Phase 3: Disposal and Litter Costs

* Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food. Turtles think the bags are jellyfish, their primary food source. Once swallowed, plastic bags choke animals or block their intestines, leading to an agonizing death.

* On land, many cows, goats and other animals suffer a similar fate to marine life when they accidentally ingest plastic bags while foraging for food.

* In a landfill, plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to degrade. As litter, they breakdown into tiny bits, contaminating our soil and water.

* When plastic bags breakdown, small plastic particles can pose threats to marine life and contaminate the food web. A 2001 paper by Japanese researchers reported that plastic debris acts like a sponge for toxic chemicals, soaking up a million fold greater concentration of such deadly compounds as PCBs and DDE (a breakdown product of the notorious insecticide DDT), than the surrounding seawater. These turn into toxic gut bombs for marine animals which frequently mistake these bits for food.

* Collection, hauling and disposal of plastic bag waste create an additional environmental impact. An estimated 8 billion pounds of plastic bags, wraps and sacks enter the waste stream every year in the US alone, putting an unnecessary burden on our diminishing landfill space and causing air pollution if incinerated

Recycling is not the solution to the plastic bag problem, either.

Recycling rates for plastic bags are extremely low. Only 1 to 3% of plastic bags end up getting recycled.

In addition, economics of recycling plastic bags are not appealing. From the process of sorting, to the contamination of inks and the overall low quality of the plastic used in plastics bags, recyclers would much rather focus on recycling the vast quantities of more viable materials such as soda and milk bottles that can be recycled far more efficiently. If the economics don’t work, recycling efforts don’t work.

For example, it costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32 (Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment as reported by Christian Science Monitor).

Furthermore many bags collected for recycling never get recycled. A growing trend is to ship them to Third world countries like India and China which are rapidly becoming the dumping grounds for the Western world’s glut of recyclables. Rather than being recycled they are cheaply incinerated under more lax environmental laws.

Even if recycling rates of plastic bags increase dramatically, it doesn’t solve other significant problems, such as the use of non-renewable resources and toxic chemicals in their original production, or the billions of bags that wind up in our environment each year that eventually breakdown into tiny toxic bits.

Using a reusable cloth bag is so much more sensible!


  1. I actually do reuse plastic bags quite a bit. I haven’t had one wear out yet, and I have only about a dozen of them that I keep using and reusing. (I started this after my cloth one started coming apart. I mended it, but I don’t trust the structural integrity of it anymore.) The thing is, the plastic bags are smaller than your average cloth bag, so each bag has less stress from weight because it has fewer things in it. These things are seriously quite sturdy, as long as you never overload them. (Bags get too heavy for me to carry before they even show any signs of stress from breaking, so no risk of overloading for me!) I carry 4 plastic bags with me in my purse, and they take up virtually no space. I can use them as 4 separate bags or double-bag them.

    I also use plastic bags as trash-can liners. I haven’t bought trash bags in years! I don’t know anyone who just throws them away, actually. People always keep them around “just in case” and they always come in handy!

    Comment by gennette — July 27, 2010 @ 1:42 am

  2. What about chips and snacks that come in plastic bags? Will any American be able to avoid those?
    And just curious, does any American ever buy anything in loose? Even fruits are packaged, aren’t they? How is anyone gonna avoid those?

    Comment by krithika — April 6, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

  3. Plastic toothbrushes replaced every sixth month? I use a fallen tree twig every day. The humble Indian daatun.

    Soap and Shampoo packaged with plastic? I use herbs pounded at home.

    Comment by krithika — April 6, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

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