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What’s in the Bag? The Problem with Single Use Plastics


What is the problem with plastic bags? There are hundreds of answers to this question, and people everywhere have different opinions on the topic. Some believe that plastic bags are a major threat to our planet, while some others claim it’s not so bad at all. As plastics become a growing concern in the world, many of us know instinctively that single use plastic bags can’t possibly be benefiting the planet; but ask yourself, what are you actually doing about it?

Plastic bags cause countless environmental issues. Firstly, they are usually made from polyethylene (created from natural gas and petroleum), which are non-renewable substances, extracted from the earth through drilling and fracking. The thicker bags are made from High-Density Polyethylene(#2 plastic), and the thin ones are made from Low-Density Polyethylene(#4 plastic)(Kinhal).

Although the US has an outstanding consumption rate (about 100 billion bags per year), plastic bags are seldom recycled(Parker). In fact, according to Waste Management, only about 1% of plastic bags are brought back for that purpose — most end up in landfills, and ultimately, the ocean (Bratskeir;Parker). Surprisingly, plastic bags are made from materials that are easily recycled. However, the profit gained by selling them is very low(Poken). Companies have to sell them in large bulk for it to be worth it, which is why most small recycling businesses refuse to take them; additionally, the thin bags are known to gum up machinery(Kinhal; Poken). However, large businesses like Walmart and Target have begun collecting plastic bags to recycle them. They are sold to recycling companies, and much of the plastic is used to create new bags (Reverman).

Secondly, a vast amount of plastic makes its way to the sea, which is nothing to laugh over. At least 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean annually, and plastic films are a large contributor. The number of bags dwelling in landfills to begin with, combined with the fact that they are easily moved around by the environment, make them within the top 5 items found in rivers and beaches. Nationally, single use plastics make up 40% of all plastics(Parker). So what actually happens when the bags reach the ocean? While intact, they tend to float, bobbing near the surface. Due to ocean currents, hundreds of plastic items (bags and much more), are swept together, and accumulate to form Gyres. These ‘land masses’, literally plastic islands, can stretch for thousands of square miles. One, called the Great Pacific Gyre, has been found to cover 386 sq. miles(Kinhal). Even at this stage, plastic bags are a severe concern to marine welfare. Turtles in particular, are endangered by their presence, as they appear similar to jellyfish (a common food source for the species). When consumed, plastic bags block the animal’s intestines, causing it to starve. In other cases, animals cannot swallow the toxic material, and choke. Still others perish without even consuming the plastic at all, due to entanglement. This danger does not only threaten turtles, but whales and dolphins as well(Kinhal).

Why, with all of this evidence, does our nation continue to rely so heavily on single use plastic bags? There are several complicated facts that combine to form the answer. Firstly, plastic bags are convenient. Stores do not have to spend a lot of money on them, and people use them. They’re quick, easy, and advertised as the most sanitary option. Secondly, within the recent years, some skepticism has been emerging about the effectiveness of replacements. Studies focusing on global warming and carbon footprint found that environmentally friendly options, e.g. paper and reusable bags, actually had a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags (Adler). It was discovered that paper bags created a larger carbon impact, due to the manufacturing process and transportation. Wood is heavier and takes up more room than plastic, so it is true that more vehicles are needed for transportation(Adler, sec. 2). Lastly, reusable cotton bags were attacked most of all. Researchers reported that cotton, due to it’s high water intake, the pesticides and insecticides used in cultivating it, and it’s manufacturing process, created a substantially higher carbon impact than plastic(Adler; Elmas). People were also convinced by the numbers collected from a UK test, titled Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006: in order for a paper bag to equal the same carbon impact as a plastic bag, it must be used 4 times. In order for a cotton tote to do the same, it must be used 131 times(Agency; Elmas). Naturally, once this information became known, individuals began to think twice. Many minds changed, and some actually began to resist bans. People aren’t willing to change unless they are positively confident in their actions, and that wasn’t the case with this new complication.

The issue with this standpoint is that it refuses to view the larger picture. Carbon impact aside, plastic has been proven to destroy the planet more than anything else. With this new skepticism, is the best we can come up with really going back to plastic? The figure “131 times”, is no excuse to use plastic. If anything, it should inspire us to use the bag that many times. This seems like a large effort to prevent the carbon impact of only 1 plastic bag, but what really must be considered is the fact that it’s also preventing 131 plastic bags from being used, discarded, and polluting the earth. Isn’t it a little absurd that cotton is being attacked, when we use it for so many things? Look for reused cotton, or buy one less T-shirt, for heaven’s sake! I do recognize the importance of making decisions that are actually going to improve the environment, so, we can take this research and learn from it, without turning to plastic. For instance, it would clearly be ineffective to use a new cotton bag every trip to the store, as it would defeat the purpose. Reuse your reusable bags! To pretend that carbon impact (although destructive), is the main concern when it comes to plastic bags, is to ignore the bigger picture.

Right now, only two US states have officially banned single use plastic bags; New York and California. While several cities have also followed, there has been much discussion in the world about the effectiveness of bans. In California, after a ban was issued, sales in garbage bags increased considerably(Parker). This only proves that defeating plastic bags must be a collective effort. The government’s bans will be ineffective so long as the people refuse to change. By individually taking the initiative to cut down on our plastic usage, and by raising awareness, we can inspire larger industries to do the same. Industry follows the will of the people.

In the midst of this debate, the struggle goes on. 100 billion bags are consumed in the US alone annually, the average citizen using hundreds per year. The rate has been rapidly increasing — consider the fact that plastic bags weren’t even entering stores until the 70’s!(Parker) As of now, no one knows how many bags are produced/used annually, but estimates are between 1–5 trillion. Even if the lowest number in that wide range was the correct one (which is improbable), 1.9 million bags would be produced each minute. In case you need more context than that, if you laid 1 trillion bags evenly across the earth’s surface, there would be 5,079 in each square mile. Plastic bags have travelled to every part of our planet, including areas with little to no human residence. They’ve even been found in the Antarctic (Kinhal). Besides contaminating animals, soil, and water, they can also clog storm drains. This leads to flooding and disruption of waterways.

Until our nation completely rids itself of this problem, it may be difficult to stay completely away from plastic bags. Packaging such as bread bags can be hard to avoid, and most of us accumulate a few even unintentionally. We have no choice but to deal with these plastic bags, so deal with them responsibly. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind: Before you recycle a plastic bag, reuse it.

Although recycling is better than making fresh products, it still makes another carbon impact. Re-use it as many times as you can as is, make it into something more durable(there are lots of ways to weave sturdy tote bags out of flimsy “single use” ones), or even donate to a local dog park. Most importantly, don’t use recycling as an excuse to use more plastic. Do everything you can to prevent those bags from entering the garbage. If you accumulate single use paper bags, never throw those away either. Paper will decompose, but it takes lots of energy to be made. Lastly, use reusable bags, always. We don’t have the right to let our world waste away because it’s convenient. Do something! Try to find a bag that’s recycled cotton, and re-use it. If that’s not a possibility, a reusable recycled plastic bag is better than a single use one. Make something yourself! Whatever you have, re-use it until it falls apart. We have to start somewhere.

Stopping plastic bags isn’t going to save the world. If plastic bags are gone and plastic bottles are not, we still have plastic. If plastic bags are gone but everything continues to be powered by natural gas, we still have a problem. But we have it in our power to stop plastic bags. Each one of us has a mind, and each one of us can make a choice. We must raise awareness, and we must inspire change. Saying no to single use plastic bags isn’t the end, but it’s a step, a step worth taking.


This article was originally published by Ada G Lenarz,



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