The problem with plastic bags (and the solution)

In Living Green, Recycling on August 24, 2010 at 5:14 am

Thora Birch’s boyfriend in American Beauty found beauty in a plastic bag blowing in the wind, but plastic bags cause such significant damage to our environment that I can’t see any good qualities in plastic bags.

What’s the problem with plastic bags?

They’re a threat to marine life

Plastic bags can cause severe injury or even death in marine animals, especially turtles that mistake the bags for jellyfish, their favorite snack. Marine animals get tangled in the bags or will ingest them, which leads to starvation, infection, suffocation or drowning. Even if you make sure to properly dispose of plastic bags, loose plastic bags have a way of blowing out of garbage trucks and ending up as litter on our beaches and oceans.

They’re made from oil

Like other plastic products, plastic bags are made from oil and natural gas – resources that require energy-intensive extraction and production, pollute the environment and have significant political and social implications.

Litter hurts the local economy

California’s coastal tourism industry relies on picturesque beaches and oceans. Beaches littered with plastic bags and other trash drive away tourists and mean less money flowing in to the local economy.

You’re paying for it

Government agencies spend millions of taxpayer dollars each year cleaning up litter, including plastic bags (that’s your money!). According to a report by the California Ocean Protection Council: “In the 2005-2006 fiscal year, Caltrans [a Californian government agency] spent $55 million to remove litter and debris from roadsides and highways, some of which would have otherwise drained to the ocean.”

Recycling isn’t working

Californians use 19 billion single-use plastic bags annually. Despite a 2006 California law requiring large retailers to collect plastic bags for recycling, less than 5% of these 19 billion plastic bags are recycled (statistics from Californians Against Waste).

How can you help solve the plastic bag problem?

Support California Assembly Bill 1998

Currently under review by the California State Senate, AB 1998 would ban the use of single-use, carry-out plastic bags at grocery stores and large retail outlets. Shoppers would be encouraged to bring their own reusable bags to the store;  if they do not, they will be charged a small fee for a recycled-content paper bag (5-8 cents per bag – the actual cost of the bag).

Environmental organizations have been trying to change shoppers’ behavior for years: promoting reusable bags with media campaigns and bag giveaways. Many grocery stores also encourage shoppers to bring their own bags by offering discounts or prizes.

Despite these feel-good campaigns and a growing environmental awareness, the fact remains that Californians use 19 billion plastic grocery bags every year, and that number shows no sign of decreasing. People will not change their behavior until it hits their pocketbook:  just like the soaring gas prices of a few years ago – not educational campaigns or incentives – motivated folks to get out of their cars and on to public transportation.

Several cities and countries have banned or placed a fee on carry-out bags with positive results. Ireland reduced single-use plastic bags by 90% after enacting a fifteen-cent fee per bag in 2002.

Email your State Senator today telling him/her to support AB 1998 – the Senate will vote any day now!

BYOB: bring your own bag!

Bring your own bags whenever you shop. Can’t remember to bring your own bag? Keep your bags in the trunk of your car, or use a bag that folds down and fits into your purse or pocket when you’re not using it. Click here for more tips to remember to BYOB.

Reuse plastic bags

It’s entirely possible that even the most dedicated BYOB shopper will end up with a few plastic bags. Reuse plastic bags around the house – use them to line your bathroom trash cans, deal with pet waste or as packaging material when mailing breakable items.

Using plastic bags from the grocery store as a mini-trash can liner is quite popular – and suggesting that people avoid taking home plastic bags for this purpose causes quite the lively debate on environmental blogs and websites (who knew people could get so passionate about their trash bags?).

People argue that it is not environmentally friendly or thrifty to refrain from bringing home plastic bags from the store and then purchase a new set of bags for their mini-trash cans.


  • Bring your own bags to the grocery store and buy recycled-content trash can liners for all your home’s trash containers, including the small bathroom and bedroom trash cans. This way, you’re reducing the demand for new bags made from petroleum and increasing the demand for products made from old plastic bags.

It is often difficult to find four-gallon mini-trash can liners with recycled content (I can’t even find a link to show you!), but I had success at Walgreens, locating small bags by EarthSense. Don’t buy “biodegradable” trash bags – landfills are designed to prevent  material from decomposing (only buy biodegradable trash bags for yard waste that you know will be collected for composting).

  • Or don’t line the bathroom and bedroom trash cans. When the trash cans are full, empty them into your main trash bag (which is made of recycled material, of course). This works if you and your family members are not throwing away anything that can leak or make a mess in the trash can.

(As mentioned before, you will probably end up with a few miscellaneous plastic bags, and you can continue to use those in your small trash cans).

Recycle plastic bags

Your last resort. If you are left with more plastic bags than you can reuse (which you shouldn’t!), make sure to recycle them. Californians can recycle plastic bags at large supermarkets and major retails stores with a pharmacy (Safeway, Vons, Target, Walmart, etc.). Non-Californians can check out to find the closest plastic bag recycling location.


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