The Plastic Plague

Since their introduction in the eighties, plastic grocery bags have become ubiquitous, not only in grocery stores and your homes, but also strewn across the landscapes of cities and floating in the world's oceans. Because of their widespread presence as litter in trees and on streets, they are often referred to as "white pollution" in China, the "national flower" in South Africa, and the "national flag" in Ireland.

It is estimated by the EPA that between 500 billion and 1 trillion bags are consumed per year worldwide. This breaks down to between 1 and 2 million bags per minute! Meanwhile, an estimated 5 to 10 billion of these bags ends up as litter outside of landfills, potentially clogging gutters and sewer pipes, causing other damage along with their unsightliness, and less than 3% are recycled. Here in the US, we use around 12 million barrels of oil to produce the 100 billion bags we consume each year.

These billions of bags endanger many species of wildlife, from whales, sea turtles, birds, and seals, to cows and goats who accidentally ingest them while grazing. More than 100,000 animals per year die as a result of plastic bag pollution; they are suffocated, trapped, starved, choked, or poisoned. For aquatic life, bags often appear to be jellyfish, a favorite food of sea turtles. As the bags degrade, they disintegrate into small pieces that absorb more toxic chemicals, becoming even more dangerous while appearing more edible, in this bite-size form, to sea creatures.

Unfortunately, plastic bags cost only around 1¢ to produce, making them so inexpensive that they are handed out excessively by store clerks (the average family is said to receive 60 bags in only 4 trips to the store). While, of course, many people use these plastic bags as trash bags around the house or as helpful assistants in cleaning up after their pets, many of us have continually growing piles of them with little chance that they will ever all be used.

When thrown out, plastic bags take up to 1,000 years to degrade, contaminating soil and water in the process. Re-using these bags is, of course, better than discarding them, but still wastes the non-renewable fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) that were required to produce them. Recycling, unfortunately, is not a very viable option for the majority of grocery bags, as it costs an estimated $4,000 to recycle a ton of plastic bags that can then be sold for only around $32.

Thus, many nations have taken steps to reduce plastic bag use among their populations, from Ireland to Australia, South Africa to Taiwan. In Ireland, for example, each bag is now taxed at approximately 20¢ (though this is expected to rise to 22¢). Since the imposition of this tax, plastic bag consumption there has been reduced by approximately 90%. Other nations (and here in the United States, cities like San Francisco) have worked to ban their use/distribution altogether.

A smaller tax than Ireland's (perhaps a few cents) would certainly be motivational for those untroubled by environmental concerns here in the US. This is, though, not my only suggestion here, as it's not exactly an easy practical tip for immediate implementation. With reuse and recycling only marginally helpful, it falls upon us to reduce. Purchasing reusable bags, or even just making sure you aren't given superfluous bags on your shopping trips, can add up. For example, consider refusing a bag altogether if only buying one or two items.

Personally, I have gotten a lot of use out of reusable bags from Envirosax ( These bags are inexpensive, can hold more than twice what typical grocery bags do, and roll/fold up neatly so that they can be kept on hand easily for use while out shopping. Similar products are available from organizations like ecobags ( and Reusable Bags (, and many stores now sell canvas bags near the checkout. Once reusable bags become a part of your routine, consider frequenting stores where discounts are offered for using them and encourage other stores to incorporate such policies.

Read More on Conservation Corner
Volume 4, Issue 5, Posted 12:34 PM, 02.23.2008