Why You Should Stop Using Plastic Bags

How Many Plastic Bags Do Americans Dispose of Each Year?

Floating plastic bag in the ocean that can be mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles
Floating plastic bags can be mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles.

mattpaul/RooM/Getty Images

Americans dispose of more than 100 billion plastic bags every year, and only a fraction are ever recycled.

What’s So Bad About Plastic Bags?

Plastic bags are not biodegradable. They fly off trash piles, garbage trucks, and landfills, and then clog stormwater infrastructure, float down waterways, and spoil the landscape. If all goes well, they end up in proper landfills where they may take 1,000 years or more to break down into ever smaller particles that continue to pollute the soil and water.

Birds and Marine Mammals Mistake Them for Food

Plastic bags also pose a serious danger to birds and marine mammals that often mistake them for food. Floating plastic bags regularly fool sea turtles into thinking they are one of their favorite prey, jellyfish. Thousands of animals die each year after swallowing or choking on discarded plastic bags. This mistaken identity issue is apparently a problem even for camels in the Middle East!

Sunlight and Ever Smaller Pieces

Plastic bags exposed to sunlight for long enough do undergo physical breakdown. Ultra-violet rays turn the plastic brittle, breaking it into ever smaller pieces. The small fragments then mix with soil, lake sediments, are picked up by streams, or end up contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other oceanic trash deposits.

Manufacture, Transport, Use, Dispose of, Collect, Recycle

Finally, producing plastic bags, transporting them to stores, and bringing the used ones to landfills and recycling facilities require millions of gallons of petroleum, a non-renewable resource which can arguably be better used for more beneficial activities like transportation or heating.

Consider a Personal Ban on Plastic Bags

Some businesses have stopped offering their customers plastic bags, and many communities are considering a ban on plastic bags — San Francisco was the first to do that in 2007. Some states are experimenting with solutions like mandatory deposits, purchasing fees, and outright bans. Various grocery store chains now have policies to minimize use, including requesting a small fee to clients who would like plastic bags to be provided to them.

Switch to Reusable Bags and Recycle the Rest

  1. Switch to reusable shopping bags. Reusable shopping bags made from renewable materials conserve resources by replacing paper and plastic bags. Reusable bags are convenient and come in a variety of sizes, styles, and materials. When not in use, some reusable bags can be rolled or folded small enough to fit easily into a pocket. Make sure you wash them regularly.
  2. Recycle your plastic bags. If you do end up using plastic bags now and then, be sure to recycle them. Many grocery stores now collect plastic bags for recycling. If yours does not, check with your community recycling program to learn how to recycle plastic bags in your area.

The Plastic Industry Responds

As with most environmental issues, the plastic bag problem is not as simple as it seems. Plastic industry groups like to remind us that compared to the paper bag alternative, plastic bags are light, have low transportation costs, and require comparatively little (non-renewable) resources to make while generating less waste. They also are completely recyclable, provided your community has access to the right facilities. Their contribution to landfills is actually fairly small, and by the industry's estimate, 65% of Americans actually re-purpose and reuse their plastic bags. Of course, these arguments are less convincing when the comparisons are made against washable, sturdy reusable shopping bags.


Edited by Frederic Beaudry.