Recycling Plastic Bags

By: Nicole McGarrity

Why are plastic bags bad for the environment?

  • A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.
  • The U.S. goes through 100 billion single-use plastic bags. This costs retailers about $4 billion a year.
  • Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean pollution, after cigarette butts (2008)
  • Plastic bags remain toxic even after they break down.
  • Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.
  • An estimated 3,960,000 tons of plastic bags, sack and wraps were produced in 2008. Of those, 3,570,000 tons (90%) were discarded. This is almost triple the amount discarded the first year plastic bag numbers were tracked (1,230,000 tons in 1980). (EPA)
  • Anywhere from .5% to 3% of all bags winds up recycled. (BBC, CNN)

How is recycling plastic bags beneficial?

Recycling Plastics Conserves Energy and Natural Resources
Recycling plastics reduces the amount of energy and natural resources (such as water, petroleum and natural) needed to create virgin plastic. According to the American Plastics Council, the production of plastics accounts for 4 percent of U.S. energy consumption, and 70 percent of plastics in the United States are made from domestic natural gas.

Recycling Plastics Saves Landfill Space
Recycling plastic products also keeps them out of landfills and allows the plastics to be reused in manufacturing new products. Recycling one ton of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space.

What do I do with plastic grocery bags?

Plastic grocery bags are not generally accepted in community recycling programs in Mississippi or across the country. There are several grocery store chains in the state that provide recycling collection bins at or near the front entrance of the store. Most of these plastic grocery bags are shipped off to one or more companies that manufacture composite lumber used in plastic picnic tables, outdoor decks and fences. Contact the local grocery store to find out if they participate in this program.

How can others reduce the amount of plastic bags they use?

  • The solution is not a plastic bag ban, which is an emotional response which fails to strike at the heart of the issue; instead of a market-based solution, a ban shifts production to paper bags and compostable bags, both of which have heavy environmental consequences.
  • The solution is not switching to paper bags or compostable plastic bags. A study on the life cycle of three types of disposable bags (single-use plastic, paper, and compostable plastic) showed that both compostable plastic and paper bags require more material per bag in the manufacturing process. This means "higher consumption of raw materials in the manufacture of the bags...[and] greater energy in bag manufacturing and greater fuel use in the transport of the finished product. ...The added requirements of manufacturing energy and transport for the compostable and paper bag systems far exceed the raw material use in the standard plastic bag system." (from a peer reviewed Boustead Consulting & Associates report)
  •™ supports a multi-pronged approach that discourages the distribution of plastic bags with a tax and a cultural shift away from use-and-toss plastic bags:
    • Plastic Tax: In 2001, Ireland implemented a plastic tax (or PlasTax); the first of its kind, this route acknowledges the fact that people will still occasionally use plastic bags. This market-based solution discourages daily, thoughtless use of plastic bags by charging a nominal fee per bag at checkout. In a study by the Irish Department of the Environment it was found that plastic bag usage had dropped 93.5%. This breaks down to a drop from 328 to 21 bags per person each year.
    • A cultural shift away from use-and-toss culture: Each reusable bag can eliminate hundreds (if not thousands) of plastic bags.