Are Plastic Bags Evil?

Some U.S. states have banned the single-use plastic bag. Others have prohibited plastic bag bans. Should you feel ashamed when you accept a plastic bag?

Five Figures to Consider

100 billion plastic bags thrown out by Americans each year
2 states have plastic bag bans in place; 9 states have prohibited plastic bag bans
2 times more greenhouse gas emissions in a single-use paper bag than a plastic one
14% of plastic bags and films are recycled; most end up in landfills
140,000 recycled plastic bags in 500 square feet of Trex decking

Paper or Plastic? It may not be the weightiest ethical question of our time, but it’s one you are likely asked each day. You glance at your options –  an earth-colored, plant-derived paper sack or a natural gas or petroleum-based, sea-turtle killing polyethelene bag.  Hmm. I’ll take the paper, please. Uh-oh. Wrong answer.

Americans use 100 billion plastic bags each year.  That is 360 bags per person, bags that are used an average of 20 minutes and thrown out. The attributes of the single-use plastic bag are also its worst qualities. They cost fractions of a penny, so stores give them away. They are lightweight, so the wind carries them away. They are durable, so they take centuries to go away. Plastic bags have been found in the bellies of dead, leatherback sea turtles, stuck in the works of recycling equipment and as litter clogging storm drains, floating in lakes and streams, drifting on beaches and flapping in trees.

It’s no surprise then that plastic bag ban legislation has popped up around the world and in 18 states across the country.  California has a statewide ban. Hawaii has so many local bans that it has a de facto state ban. At the same time, nine states, including Missouri, Iowa and Arizona, have gone 180 degrees in the other direction and instituted statewide bans on plastic bag bans.  Ban opponents argue that bag factory jobs will be lost, that plastic bags take up just .5% of the solid waste stream, and that plastic bags are environmentally preferable to paper bags.

Believe it or not, by some measures paper bags and reusable bags are worse for the environment than single-use plastic bags. A paper bag requires five times more energy to produce and transport, causes two times more greenhouse gas and seven times more solid waste emissions, and uses 25 times more water. A reusable, low density, polyethylene bag composed of 40% post-consumer recycled material (the lowest impact reusable bag), requires six times more energy and water to produce than a single-use plastic bag and also yields more greenhouse gases and solid waste during production. Apart from a reed basket woven locally by hand, there is no such thing as a zero-impact carryall.

So what should a shopper do? Bring your own bags made of post-consumer recycled material and reuse them until they fall apart. When you forget your bag, don’t be afraid to choose plastic. Reuse it, and, if it’s clean, recycle it. According to the EPA only 14% of plastic bags and plastic films are recycled. That compares with 55% of aluminum cans. One of the reasons for the poor recycling rate for single-use bags is that recycling is not available curbside. Plastic bags jam traditional recycling machinery so they have to be recycled separately. Often stores that distribute plastic bags are required to offer recycling bins for them. You can recycle other types of clear plastic there as well including bubble wrap and ziploc bags. Although single use bag recycling is not always cost-effective, it does reduce post-consumer waste and the refining of millions of containers of petroleum and natural gas, the raw material of plastic bags.

So should you support a bag ban or a bag fee in your state? Not if the new rules just encourage  consumers to switch from plastic to paper. An effective ban would charge for both plastic AND paper bags with revenue going to municipal waste collection (not to retailers as the failed New York City bag ban aimed to do or to a special clean-up fund as in Washington, D.C.) Meanwhile, recycle your bags and support the recycling industry by shopping for products made of recycled plastic like Rothy’s shoes, Hamilton Perkins earth bags, Pilot bottle 2 pens and Trex composite decking, 500 square feet of which contains a whopping 140,000 recycled plastic bags.  Thanks in part to thinner beverage bottles and an increase in recycling, American landfill use has dropped from 3.2 pounds per person per day in 1990 to 2.3 in 2014.  But there is more we can do. According to the Recycling Partnership, just 35%-45% of recyclables are recovered.

Plastic bag litter is a nuisance and can be deadly to wildlife, but plastic bag bans are not necessarily a “green” solution.  By some measures plastic bags cause less environmental harm than paper or cotton bags do.  So don’t be ashamed to leave the grocery store with a plastic bag, just don’t forget to recycle it.  Find a plastic bag recycling location near you.