The Big Issue: Plastic Bags

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Over the past year, the buzz about paper, plastic and reusable bags has grown louder by the day.

In the last two years, four states – California, New York, Rhode Island and Delaware; five cities – Tucson, Chicago, New York City, San Juan Capistrano, Calif. and Red Bank, N.J.; and five counties in New York – Albany, Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk and Westchester, have enacted mandatory plastic bag recycling.

In the meantime, San Francisco and San Jose have enacted their own bag bans, and Florida is considering similar legislation for both paper and plastic.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com
Plastic bag production uses less than 4 percent of the water needed to make paper bags. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

But what’s the big deal? Why do people care so much about what bags they use, especially when it comes to plastic versions? We’re going to get down to the bottom of the plastic bag, and you may be surprised about what we’ve dug up.

The Issues

Recently, a topic of major debate that’s put plastic bags in the spotlight is the discovery of  the giant, floating masses of trash and plastic in the world’s oceans. Located in the North Pacific Ocean, one of these masses is said to be twice the size of Texas and has probably developed over the past 30 years.

Adding to this dilemma, scientists recently discovered that, contrary to previous belief, plastics break down quickly and in low temperatures in the ocean.

“We found that plastic in the ocean actually decomposes as it is exposed to the rain and sun and other environmental conditions, giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue into the future,” said Katsuhiko Saido, lead author of the study that discovered this information, tells BBC News.

But how did all this trash make it to our oceans? Among many issues, littering and lack of awareness about recycling are major causes of concern.

The Hard Facts

Let’s admit it, if it came down to choosing paper versus plastic bags at the checkout line, most people would choose paper. After all, they’re made from a renewable resource and are typically pretty easy to recycle. But when you consider the overall life cycle impact of paper bags over plastic, paper doesn’t look quite as green:

  • Each year, Americans use about 10 billion paper bags, resulting in the cutting down of 14 million trees.
  • Using paper bags doubles the amount of CO2 produced versus using plastic bags.
  • Plastic grocery bags require 40-70 percent less energy to manufacture than paper bags.
  • It takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper.
  • In the U.S. nearly 80 percent of polyethylene (the plastic used for bags) is produced from natural gas. This includes feedstock, process and transportation energy.

According to Keith Christman, senior director of market advocacy for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), plastic bags may actually be the better choice.

“They reduce greenhouse gas emissions [...] they use half the emissions and use half the energy and create 80 percent less waste than paper bags,” he told Earth911.

But why do bags have such a lower environmental footprint in manufacturing? According to Christman, one of the factors that accounts for this is the difference in weight between a typical paper and plastic bag, with paper bags weighing 10 times as much as their plastic counterparts on average.

“That goes along with the fundamental law of reducing – using much less material in the first place,” he said.

What Now?

Ways to reduce your impact when it comes to plastic bags are both simple and accessible.

1. Reduce Your Use

When it comes to disposable bags in general, it’s a good idea to evaluate when you really need one. An example of this is to adhere to “proper bagging techniques,” as Christman refers to them. This includes maximizing the products in your bags or avoiding bag use for only a few items. “If you only have one item at the store, for example, you really don’t need a bag,” he said.

Additionally, using reusable bags is a great choice. Always think “quality over quantity” and go for sturdy bags that were made with recycled or organic materials.

2. Reuse What You Can

Since a typical plastic bag weighs approximately 4 to 5 grams and can hold up to 17 pounds of product – nearly 2,000 times its own weight – they can usually withstand a few rounds of use.

If you don’t want to buy reusable bags, taking your plastic bags back to the store for a few more trips is a great option. Additionally, there are a number of wonderful craft ideas for plastic bag reuse, including messenger bags and even art.

3. Recycle the Rest

Even though one little, insignificant plastic bag doesn’t seem like a big deal to toss in the trash, the cumulative effects of all this waste far outweigh the convenience of not having to stockpile your bags for your next trip to the grocery store.

For example, according to ZeroWaste California, it costs the state $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags. And because plastic bags are not typically accepted in your curbside bin, they seem more difficult to recycle than their paper counterparts.

However, according to the ACC, retail stores with plastic bag collection programs are located in every U.S. state. Earth911 also lists thousands of locations to recycle plastic bags across the country. Most locations offer the option to recycle other types of plastic bags, such as:

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com
About 89 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are used each year in the U.S. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com
  • Newspaper bags
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Bread bags
  • Produce bags
  • Toilet paper, napkin and paper towel wraps
  • Furniture wrap
  • Electronic wrap
  • Plastic retail bags (hard plastic and string handles removed)
  • Zip lock bags (remove the “zippers”)
  • Plastic cereal box liners (if it tears like paper, do not include)
  • Diaper wrap (packaging)
  • Plastic shipping envelopes (no bubble wrap and be sure to remove any labels)
  • Case wrap (e.g., snacks, water bottles)
  • All clean, dry bags labeled #2 or #4

When you take your bags for recycling, it’s important to note that you should remove all receipts and make sure the bags are clean and dry.

What’s Next

One of the best aspects of recycling plastic bags and film is what these material will do in their next product life cycles. A primary usage of plastic bags and film is in composite lumber, which accounts for almost 37 percent of the recycled product market.

Recycled plastic can also become a number of other products. According to the ACC’s “Too Valuable To Waste” Web site, “While litter doesn’t belong swimming in the sea, it also doesn’t always belong in the trash bin. Plastic bottles and other plastic containers are among the most easily recyclable materials, and can go on to live a very useful second life as decking, carpet or polar fleece, just to name a few.”

  • http://www.changents.com/earthkeepers Amanda D

    Plastic bags can have huge environmental impact, and none of it is good. Personally, if I ABSOLUTELY NEED to use a plastic bag, I make sure that it gets recycled when I’m done with it. Many grocery stores offer this service and it’s super easy to do. If you don’t recycle, your city or town often looks like the photos in this “Plastic Blooms” album from eco-photographer Andrea Bakacs: http://tinyurl.com/yzywtob

  • http://recyclebills.squarespace.com/recycleblog/ RecycleBill

    “According to Keith Christman, senior director of market advocacy for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), plastic bags may actually be the better choice.”

    You’ll notice the ACC doesn’t mention bags made from hemp paper.

  • http://changents.com/earthkeepers Eleanor

    If you want some visual motivation to STOP using plastic bags, check out this photo album from photo-activist Andrea Bakacs, entitled Plastic Blooms: http://ow.ly/B5yu

    Gross. Can we please get over plastic and do the re-usable thing?

  • Vipin

    Some years back in India we stared winning away our village folk from wood burning to fossile fuels. To-day the world wants to use wood as rwnewable resource. Some time back people are told to stop using plastic and use paper. Now, this article tells very clearly how plastic is far more efficient in resource utilization as compared to paper which needs high resource input for first use and for recycle. What we all need is a holistic approch. The society needs to develop least resouce intensive ways of leaving for suvival of human kind.

  • simiyahouse

    Hi Greens

    “Quality over quantity”
    let us live it not just talk, this is a discovery
    For me,when have plastic bags become so safe! Is this a marketing deception.

    Let us reuse as much plastic bags as we can, most shops and supermarket give customers too much bag. Supermarkets should be more responsible and proactive in the enlightenment of customer awearness to recyle.

  • Bad Rabbit

    How do I find out what local places accept those “other” plastic bags such as those listed in the article? If I type in my zipcode (23112), it lists a bunch of Walmarts that accept plastic bags.

  • Simiya House

    Hi Greens

    Jennifer I always find your articles to be very palatable .
    Please keep it up!

    Simiya

  • Linda

    The lesser of two evils doesn’t make either one good. Notice you totally neglected to include the fact that we use of petroleum to produce the plastic bags. You also left out the chemical toxin problems associated with their manufacture and disposal. This article is so incomplete as to be misleading. If you’re going to write about it, at least do your homework.

  • http://www.ecoroot.com/retail.html Kit Parks

    Linda is being harsh on Jennifer. I thought she did a fine job. It takes energy to create a plastic, paper or a reusable bag. A better question Linda is, what is the least environmentally hazardous way to bring home our purchases? Like Jennifer reports, paper is not the answer: it is more harmful to make, and even though it is capable of decomposition, in a landfill it does not due to lack of air and water. Plastic bags can be indispensible (say by reusing to pick up dog waste?) and thus have merit at times and can do the job that the others can’t. A reusable bag is only good if one remembers to use it and not leave it in the car (shameless self-promotion: check out our Ecoroot bags at http://www.ecoroot.com/retail). Unless a reusable bag is used at least ten times (on average), it uses more energy to produce than the others. My point is that we need to use common sense about this debate. My personal take is to not use paper bags, avoid plastic unless you need a few for some specific ‘reasons’ , but mostly use your reusable bags.

  • Bad Rabbit

    Linda is incorrect. Most plastic bags are not made from petroleum. They are made from natural gas.

  • Bad Rabbit

    The majority of plastic bags are made from natural gas and not oil.

  • the bear

    A few thoughts:
    Natural gas is related to the formation of petrolium, and is just as non-renewable and is still destructive to extract. Be careful with misleading simple statements bad rabbit.
    In India, I recently heard that plasit bags were banned becasue they were cloging the sewars and flooding the streets with sewage. Here is a delightful picture of over consumption: plastic covering the streets and sidewalks and once it rains it brings our own human waste to the surface. The message here, dont use bags at all, and if you do, make them reuseable!
    Be careful when using information from the American Chemistry Coucil. A quick search of thier site reveals an interesting list of member companies: Dow, PuPont, Chevron, Exxon, and about 40 other companies that most likely have a stake in fossil fuels that produce plastic bags and/or the manufacture of the actual plasitc bags themselves.
    Reduce your waste, dont focus on the lesser of two evils.

  • http://www.stoprecycling.com Mckenna

    Stop Recycling! http://www.stoprecycling.com

    “Needing” a plastic bag so one has a way of scooping up dog poop is a lazy brain approach.

    RETHINK, reduce, reuse, and use recycling as little as possible.

    Can anyone here come up with an alternative to a plastic bag (which I doubt was then scrubbed clean and recycled!) for poop pick-up? I can.

    Mckenna

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  • http://Herewegoagain... Kelly Stewart

    What a lot of nonsense. There is no research showing anything about the decomposition of the plastic bag nor how much energy used in their production. More hogwash from the birkenstock-wearing tree huggers who have brainwashed the politicians (probably bribed) and brainwashed the citizens (not that difficult) into believing all these environmental exaggerations. Global warming? Are you kidding? The planet is cooling off! The only problem with plastic bags is that people litter them rather than throw them in garbage cans. So because of this, I now have to pay for bags for my garbage can. So with the environmentalists reasoning (bags are wrong because they are littered), then we should close all liquor stores because there are alcoholics who can’t control their drinking and let’s get all the cars off the road because some people cause accidents! Birds choke eating plastic bags they say? Well, birds are stupid — they fly into windows and airplane propellers. Enough said.

  • http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr.pdf the bear

    Ms. Stewart, you have some awfully strong opinions. If you can back them up with more than insults, then maybe we should listen. For example, with climate change (global warming is a misnomer) there are hundreds of distinguished scientists that agree humans are changing our climate in ways that will decrease our quality of life (not to mention biodiversity). The Intergovernmental Pannel on Climate Change (IPCC) that is composed of almost 100 of the worlds top scientists have been working for 20 years, and have even been given the Nobel Peace Prize for thier work. See the attached web link, and scroll down to page 46 for a quick look at a graph of likely temperature increases. You may dismiss some or all of these findings because their is uncertainty, however, if I told you that if you give your infant a plastic bag that there is a chance they will put it over thier head and suffocate, I doubt you would say that you should give it to them anyway.
    There are a lot of people out there that might react to your comments in the same way that you did:
    “She is just a stupid, ignorant bird, that flys into windows, and propellers, and rants and raves without checking her facts…” That is not constructive. Take a look at the link, and let us know what you think.
    There is a lot at stake here, and no one should be left to fly into a propeller, especially when the rest of us could be pulled in with you.

  • the bear

    Oh, one more thing. The brainwashing and bribing you speak of could be considered Lobbying and Advertizing/Outreach. Realize that these are practiced by both sides of the debate (ie industry vs. environmentalists). However, one key difference is that industry is making a lot of money off of, in this case, plastic bags. Therefore, they have a lot of money to spend on getting thier ideas out. Environmetnalists, on the other hand, are not making money. For the most part, they are volunteering thier time to get the word out. I am not trying to say that organizations like the American Chemistry Council are evil and trying to take over the world. They are inherently forced, as corporations, to protect their own best interests, and that means protecting profitability.

  • Bad Rabbit

    Hey Bear. My statement is simplistic but it is also true. I didn’t claim that natural gas is any better or worse than oil.

  • Bad Rabbit

    Also, plastic bags mean a lot more than just plastic grocery bags. I’m all for using reusable bags for going to the grocery store. But face it. Plastic bags are needed in lots of product packaging. It’s great that the word is getting out that these other plastic bags can be recycled at your local grocery store. I don’t think the ACC is against recycling. In fact, that’s where the Earth 911 list came from!

  • B. Runde

    I would like to back up the bear and say to Kelly Stewart that if you think Global Warming is a JOKE then maybe you should do a little more research. Our storms have been getting more severe, the sea levels are rising, and the ice caps are melting. Are you dense? Do some research before you make yourself look anymore ignorant. I’m sure scientists have been utilizing 20 years of research just to throw the biggest prank the world has ever seen.

  • http://NotionsCapital.com Mike Licht

    On the negative side, there is the social disruption of shopping bag antagonism and one-upmanship.

    See:

    http://notionscapital.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/shopping-bag-warning/

  • Dakota

    Irony is that in 2008 there were 500 million reusable bags dumped in the use. Most are give aways that become throw aways because they are not recycled in any communities. That is it just stop the reusable give away insanity. Now Walmart has a $0.15 “reusable” bag…hey that is less than what we were going to tax bags in Seattle…so now reusable are disposables…just F-n great…now we get to choke on them too….

    Sorry to $8 hemp bag here…I have a backpack for that. At lease the plastic bags could be dropped in the recycling bin

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  • http://www.orionblinds.co.uk Jay

    we really do need to do our bit for the environment. i truly believe plastic bags are having such a negative impact.

  • white cat

    What do you recommend for removing trash and garbage from your home? I live in a condo so the board provides plastic bags for this purpose. What is a responsible person to do?

  • peter j bottomley

    poddy/ plastic bags and all things poly have and still will cause alot of trouble for the entire world, so all the citys around the world going plastic bag free are doing their bit, but a lot more has to be done from the makers of all things, (C2 H4 ethylene) C to change H for help, I have written an article about how the plastics revolution first stated in 1862 at the exhibition in London, the article is on the Saltaire village info web site have a read and see what you think, by the way it was a British man who first started the plastic revolution with his invention of `PARKESINE` Alex Parkes was his name, keep on recycling

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  • Lorraine McNeair

    Hi everyone. I am from Australia, and thought I would give you my views on plastic bags. I am passionate about recycling. Here in Australia everything seems geared towards mutinationals making bigger profits. The two big multinational supermarkets here in Australia had introduced biodegradable plastic bags at one stage, but then decided they took more off their profits (presumably they were more expensive for them to buy), so the responsibility has been thrown back at consumers with the green bag, which is sold to them for $1 each. That is not a problem, but these bags are thought to be a worse threat to our environment because they take much longer to break down.

  • Lorraine McNeair

    Oh, by the way, I have always recycled the plastic bags.

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  • Oscar

    Many, if not all, of the professional quotes about plastics and plastic bags come from personnel from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which is very heavily invested in plastics and subsequently the consumer. It is necessary to investigate who these professionals are and what their interests are. Plastics do not go away. Please research the damage experienced by birds and the great pacific garbage patch. We concume too much. most of this being long lasting chemical and products such as platics. Remember when they, “the professionals”, said that DDT and Agent Orange were okay? The same people that advocate the use of pesticides and plastics. They are all in bed with each other. Government is gone and has been handed over to Corporations. Its sad but true.
    Some very informative videos to be watched:
    Bag it
    Food INC
    Fresh