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Tips for Recycling: Should plastic bags be banned? | Tips For Recycling
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Should plastic bags be banned?

Last week Seattle, Washington, joined its neighbors in Oregon and California in banning plastic grocery bags. But is banning plastic bags more about image than sound environmental reasoning?

Plastic bag facts

According to the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA) of the American Chemistry Council, plastic bags are an environmentally responsible choice.

  • Plastic bags are fully recyclable and can be made into products such as backyard decking, park benches, playground equipment and…new plastic bags!
  • Plastic bags require 70% less energy to manufacture than paper bags.
  • Paper bags take up seven times more space than the same quantity of plastic bags, which means more trucks, and hence more fossil fuels, involved in delivering bags to stores.
  • Pound for pound it takes 91% less energy to recycle plastic than paper.
  • Manufacturing plastic bags takes only 4% of the water required to manufacture paper bags.
  • 65% of Americans reuse their plastic bags.

This information can be viewed with some skepticism since it is published by the plastics industry, but Earth911 corroborates much of this information. Data on the Earth911.com web site actually estimates plastic bag reuse by consumers at 90%, well above the 65% figure estimated by the PBA.  Furthermore, Earth911 reports that during production, plastic bags generate 50 percent less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and produce 80 percent less waste than paper alternatives.

So why the debate?

Despite the aforementioned plastic bag facts, there are some real environmental concerns with their use.

  • First, plastic bags are usually made of polyethelene, which is a petroleum or natural gas based product. Petroleum and natural gas are fossil fuels which are being rapidly depleted.
  • Most plastic bags are not biodegradable, and even those that are promoted as being biodegradable can take up to 200 years to break down. About 89 billion plastic bags are used in the U.S. each year. According to the EPA we currently recycle about 13% of them.

The biggest argument against plastic bags, however, comes not from a resource conservation standpoint, but from an environmental health standpoint.  The US EPA promotes banning plastic bags, but the basis for their support of this measure is due to the resulting litter and the dangers that it presents to wildlife. 

About 9% of coastal litter is plastic bags according to a five year study conducted by the Ocean Conservancy. On land plastic bags pose an unsightly debris problem. But in the marine environment they are a deadly contaminant. Sea turtles, whales and other sea mammals mistake the bags for jelly fish or other food fish and attempt to eat them. Some choke in the process, but most die after successfully ingesting the bags which then block the digestive system. This results in a slow torturous death for the animal. Many of the affected species are already on the critically endangered list.

Recycling plastic bags is the answer

A review of the facts does not necessarily support a ban on plastic bags due to concerns over resource conservation and greenhouse gas emissions. But a stronger case can be made for protecting the environment through such a measure. For this reason the PBA promotes responsible handling of plastic bags through recycling.

What you can do:

  • Reduce plastic bag consumption by declining a bag when your purchase doesn’t really require one (like for that single bottle of cola), by making sure the bags are full when you do use them, or by utilizing reuseable shopping bags.
  • Reuse your plastic bags.  This list of uses is extensive. Use them for trash can liners, to tote your lunch, to carry soiled or wet clothing, as packing material or take them back to the store and use them again.
  • Recycle your plastic bags. Most major retailers are now providing plastic bag receptacles at their stores, making recycling an easy choice. You can also recycle shrink wrap, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, sealable food storage bags, and cereal bags. If it’s not soiled with food or other contaminating residue, and it’s not a compostable bag, it can be recycled. 

 By making some responsible choices we can limit the negative impact of plastic bags. And perhaps eventually we’ll make the conscious choice to stop using them altogether.



2008 Municipal Solid Waste Facts and Figures

EPA Applauds American Samoa’s decision to ban plastic shopping bags

Earth911: Facts about plastic bags


Carbon Counted: Should plastic bags be banned?

The Ocean Conservancy: A Rising Tide of Ocean Debris and What We Can Do About It

This entry was posted in Home Recycling Tips & Tricks, Recycling Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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  1. […] There has been a great deal of debate in recent months regarding the banning of plastic grocery bags and the efficacy of this policy. Earlier this year we discussed the merits of paper vs. plastic bags in  Should plastic bags be banned?  […]

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