Why You Should Stop Using Plastic Bags

Plastic bags pollute soil and water, and kill thousands of marine mammals yearly

Floating plastic bags 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 over 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 thrash piles, garbage trucks, and landfills, and then clog storm water 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.

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!

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.

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.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of things you can do to help:

  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.