Plastic Grocery Bags 101

Posted in the Boston Globe By Leon Neyfakh November 25, 2012

Many of us remember those glorious litter-free days before we became a disposable society.  Now we see single-use low-density polyethylene plastic bags cluttering the landscape snagged on fences and trees everywhere.  First introduced to the US in 1977, by 2012 90% of all groceries were bagged in plastic per the Associated Press.  The Sierra Club estimates 380 billion plastic bags are used in the US every year (1,200 bags per person!) requiring 12 million barrels of oil to produce.

Since these plastic bags are petroleum based, they release toxic byproducts.  They take 400-1000 years to photo degrade, littering our landscape, and contaminating our water systems.  Plastic bag ingestion and entanglement is devastating to wildlife. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a swirling pool of plastic trash larger than Texas and more dead zones are being created in our oceans and lakes.  Google – 60 Minute’s segment – “Seas of Shame”.

Few bags are ever recycled. Recycling isn’t a good solution since they are expensive to recycle and yield very little return.  Some stores have vegetable-based bioplastics bags they say are biodegradable.   This simply means they are “capable” of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.  They won’t degrade in sealed landfills.  They also contaminate plastic recycling operations when mixed with the petroleum based bags.

Due to the single-use plastic bag’s environmental impact, several countries and cities in the US have banned them.  In 2002 Bangladesh led the way outlawing them and Ireland levied a 15 cent tax on them – within a year usage decreased by 90%; It was so effective, in 2007 they increased the tax to 22 cents!  San Francisco banned them in 2007.  Several more cities have followed their lead.  A few grocery stores tax plastic bags and some have stopped offering them.   So we are seeing progress.

What can you do?  If you have plastic bags reuse them – trash liners, use to pick up litter or give them to the Food Bank to reuse.  It takes trees to produce paper bags so use cloth grocery bags instead.  These are inexpensive (.50- $1), located by the check-out lane.  Pick up a few, keep them stashed in your car and Remember to Use Them!  If you still aren’t convinced, I challenge you to count how many bags your household accumulates over a 2 week period of time.  Then buy your stash of cloth bags!!

Photo by Plastic Waste SolutionsSierra Club

One thought on “Plastic Grocery Bags 101

  1. I simply save and reuse the plastic bags for groceries. It seemes like I haven’t accepted a new plastic bag from the grocer’s in years. Then once they’re super grimy I use them for trash can liners.


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