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The Lifespan of a Plastic Bag

Ban Plastic Bags

A 2017 study by the New York department of sanitation found that plastic bags made up 2% of residential waste. The average consumer typically uses a single use plastic bag for twelve minutes. After those twelve minutes, it can take up to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose.

The most common types of plastics used in shopping bags are high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and Low-density polyethylene (LDPE). These are made by heating petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (NRDC), “A major concern is the increasing use of flexible laminate packaging. The fusing of laminates makes mechanical separation very difficult.” A study by the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force found it takes 14.9 kg of fossil fuel to make the equivalent of 1,000 plastic bags.

A 2009 New York City law requires that plastic bags are labeled, “Please reuse or recycle at a participating store.” Stores are also required to offer, and often sell, reusable bags. In March of 2020, it will become illegal for any company which collects New York State sales tax to distribute plastic bags.

Recycled Correctly

Currently, there are no curb-side recycling options in New York City for plastic film, like what single use shopping bags are made out of. In 2009 it became law that retail spaces in New York City, which provide carry out bags to customers, must provide accessible at-store recycling. Only about 12% of New York’s plastic bags are recycled each year. The average New York household discarded 38.2 pounds of plastic bags in 2017, that’s approximately 3,464 plastic bags per household (2017 NYC Waste Characterization Study). The City spends an annual 12.5 million dollars to dispose of the plastic outside of its borders (NYS Plastic Bag Taskforce).

Recycled Incorrectly

Plastic bags are the second most common recycling contaminate, after compostable material. While the plastic used to make the bags is some of the most recyclable, their film forms make it more difficult. Bags can become tangled in machinery and halt disposal work for hours or even days. This inconvenience ends up costing the city more financial resources. (New York State Plastic Bag Task Force Report).

179.0 lbs of MGP, a categorizing group of plastic which includes single use shopping bags, was incorrectly discarded as refuse waste by the average household in 2017. This is an increase from the 106.3 pounds in 2013 (2017 NYC Waste Characterization Study).

Plastic bags in landfills often end up in the ocean, where they can harm sea creatures like fish and turtles, or be consumed by plankton. When this happens, the chemicals can then work their way up the food chain from plankton to fish to human consumption.

A 2014 study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic make their way into the ocean each year. WEF project that by 2050 plastic will outnumber fish. New York’s ban on plastic bags should have a major impact on the environment, and hopefully delay the irreversible harm plastic is doing to our oceans.


This story was originally published Emily Hoodenpyle,


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