Gallery: Egregious Packaging Hall of Shame: Plastic Bags Truly Do Suck

In a post entitled "A Fine Mess," Flickr user Ingrid Tayler wrote: Part of a tangled fishing line we found -- and detangled -- on Pacifica beach. A number of mollusks and crustaceans were caught in the multi-hook line, entwined with a plastic bag. We set them free after we cut away the line.

Each year nearly 380 billion plastic bags are used in the US — any only 7 percent of them are recycled. The plastic scourge clogs waterways and takes hundreds of years to break down into smaller plastic bits (the bags don’t biodegrade). They also often makes their way into animals’ bodies: birds and fish especially like to eat the pieces, which often look like food. These pieces can choke them, block their digestive tracts, and the toxins used to make the plastic often get absorbed into their systems. But it’s not all about the animals; cleanup also costs taxpayers money. According to the LA Times via Wikipedia, “In San Francisco, it cost $8.5 million in 2004 to clean up plastic bag litter. According to the California State Assembly website, it would cost $25 million a year to clean up California’s plastic waste.” Read on for a look at the plastic bag problem and ways that we can fight the plastification of our environment!

Photo © Ingrid Tayler

Plastic bags are, like most plastics (save those made from corn or sugarcane, which are a very small percentage of the current market), made from oil. According to the Sierra Club, It takes about 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million plastic bags, and the U.S. goes through 380 billion of them a year. That’s quite a bit of oil wasted on something that most of us use for just minutes before throwing away.

Lead Photo © Kate Ter Haar

Photo © Andrew Bain

Fortunately, single-use bags are on their way out — recently we applauded the 3-to-1 passing of yet another ban on plastic bags (this time in unincorporated parts of Los Angeles, which seems to be those parts of the city that aren’t part of organized neighborhoods). This latest ban joins those already in place in the Californian cities of Malibu, San Francisco, Palo Alto and Fairfax.

Nationwide, DC, Portland, Seattle, and a host of other cities have also banned plastic bags, and Ireland instituted a tax on bags, which resulted in a reduction in use of 92%, with few of the disastrous effects that online commenters rant on about. What has generally happened is that once the bags are banned, people have to remember to bring reusable ones with them, or pay a small fee for a paper bag, which is biodegradable, won’t clog up rivers and streams, doesn’t have poisonous effects on animals’ systems (keep in mind, some of these animals — fish in particular– are those that people like to eat, which means we can end up ingesting these toxins too), and are not made from oil. Not that paper bags are perfect; reusable is the way to go for sure.

Photo © velkr0

What bag-banning advocates are really fighting is habit and laziness. We are used to using bags, yes, but they are not necessary. Plastic bags are relatively recent invention; what did people do before them (or in countries today where they’re not ubiquitous)? Used paper sacks, sure, but mostly they just carried their own bags — pretty simple. Over the years, as I’ve watched this issue in the news, I have heard the same three arguments from those who oppose plastic bag bans. I’ve summed them up below:

Criticism: This will cost retailers money, as people won’t buy products they can’t carry home. Banning plastic bags hurts business.
Reality: If you forget your reusable bag, stores will be offering other types of bags that may cost .10. Plastic bags actually cost retailers $4 billion dollars a year in the United States (and guess who ends up paying for that in the end?)

Criticism: Plastic bag bans put the environment over the needs of humans.
Reality: We are not talking about emergency medical care here, we are talking about a disposable sack. Last I checked, human beings lived in the environment; when plastic bags create unsightly litter and poison waterways, it affects us directly. I don’t think convenience is more important that health or a clean vista.

Criticism: Plastic bags can be recycled, so why do we have to give them up? We should just recycle more.
Reality: Recycling still takes energy (shipping, sorting, and reprocessing) and though rates of recycling plastic bags are up from 2001 when the EPA reported that a whopping 1% of bags were recycled, it is still somewhere around 7%. Even if we increase plastic bag recycling to the rate at which we recycle plastic bottles (only around 1/3 of plastic bottles are recycled), that’s still millions of bags making their way into the environment.

Single-use plastic bags are on the way out, and good riddance!

+ Packaging the Future

Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (


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  1. HeavyD in SC November 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    OK, if you’re like me, and you’re encountering resistance when you ask people to reconsider their use of plastic bags, then share the following video with those folks. Sometimes art can move minds more effectively than logic:

  2. tsotsi November 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Bio-degradable bin liners are available, although, here in the UK, they are only large enough for the recycled food bins our council have given us – very small and not large enough for even the smallest kitchen bin. The other drawback is that these bags are expensive

  3. ines p November 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    @Yuka Yoneda: I have exactly the same issue with reusable bags.

  4. Yuka Yoneda November 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Quick question about the bags – while I was living with my mom, I would always take reusable bags to the store and even scolded her a couple of times for not doing the same. Now that I live by myself, I actually started asking for plastic bags at the store since I actually need those bags to line my garbage cans (and I feel bad because I realized my mom was probably getting the bags to do the same – she has 3 cats so there is a LOT of trash to worry about). What do you think about my situation – is it okay to take the bags as long as I’m reusing them? Also, is there a greener way to line your garbage cans?

  5. Kestrel Jenkins November 23, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Great, concise outline of the realities that counter the criticisms! It’s another one of those “convenient” things — if we could only shift our everyday routines to include acts like throwing our reusable grocery bags into our work bags, so they are always on-hand in case of need.

  6. Andrew Michler November 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Hit that link on the second page about paper bags, its no free lunch for sure. We like those little packable Chico bags if I ever remember bringing one, if not then I alway chose plastic and recycle.

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