We see the litter caused by plastic bags everywhere-- a testimony to human laziness and the carelessness of Americans.


In some countries you are charged for bags whenever you don’t bring your own reusable bags, whether you choose plastic or paper.  In most of the United States, we consider them free and we may exit a store with dozens, sometimes each holding only a few items.  If we look at our “free” plastic bags, from cradle to grave we may be shocked at the actual costs paid by our environment and society for the fleeting convenience of unlimited, single-use plastic bags.

We see the litter caused by plastic bags everywhere-- a testimony to human laziness and the carelessness of Americans.  The eyesore on the landscape may be the least of the damage and expense caused by our flippant use of plastic bags.  A friend who recently visited Canada said they had no litter along the roads.  Stores charge 5 cents for each plastic bag.  Korea charges for either plastic or paper and everyone takes his/her own reusable bag to shop.  Because of a 22 cents per bag tax, Ireland has cut the use of plastic bags by 90 percent, according to the Irish government. Wouldn’t that kind tax on plastic bags be a good solution for the US?  It might even help pay off the national debt while benefiting the environment and decreasing the use of petroleum.

A few retail chains have taken it upon themselves to charge for plastic bags.  Charging as little as five cents per bag has reportedly caused a 95 percent decrease in their use. 

The production of plastic bags requires petroleum and often natural gas, both non-renewable resources that increase our dependency on foreign suppliers.  Approximately 60 - 100 million barrels of oil are required to make the world’s plastic bags each year.  Between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. 

Prospecting and drilling for these resources contributes to the destruction of ecosystems around the world.  The manufacture of plastic bags adds tons of carbon emissions into the air annually.  Stopping the use of plastic bags would be the equivalent of taking thousands of cars off the road each year. 

There is no good way to get rid of a plastic bag.  In a landfill, they take up to 1,000 years to degrade.  As litter, they break down into tiny bits, contaminating our soil and water.  Knowing they are being mistaken for food, causing birds and animals to starve, motivated me to get serious about taking reusable bags wherever I shop.  When I unpacked my wedding dress, stored in blue plastic many years ago, I saw the small pieces of plastic that could have been mistaken for food by hungry animals.    

Yet, animal lovers who may feed their pets better than they feed themselves or their children, may think nothing of using plastic bags which kill thousands of animals each year.  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.  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.

Plastic bags are the recycler’s nightmare according to John Jurinek, the plant manager at Recycle Central, in San Francisco.  Asked what’s wrong with plastic bags?  He has a one-word answer: “Everything”.  Yet the hopeful arrow symbol emblazoned on the bags inspires people to toss their used ones into the recycling bin, feeling good that they’ve done the right thing.  Unlike other recyclable items, plastic bags tend to clog up machinery in the recycle plant and they are usually taken to the landfill.  Only about 2 percent of plastic bags are recycled and that process creates its own pollution.   They are seldom made into more plastic bags because it costs less to make new ones.  The items they are used to make are not recyclable. 

If you want to recycle a plastic bag it’s better to use it for garbage rather than buying bags; or bring it back to the store and reuse it the next time you shop.  The biggest problem with this is that once they have been soiled they end up in the trash, which then ends up in the landfill or burned. Either solution is very poor for the environment. Burning emits toxic gases that harm the atmosphere and increase the level of VOCs in the air while landfills hold them indefinitely as part of the plastic waste problem throughout the globe.

Why not get in the habit of taking reusable bags with you wherever you go?  Make a conscious effort to limit plastic bag use—let’s do our part.