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Should You Ban Plastic Bags From Your Life:
Six Reasons You May Want to Consider It

San Francisco is currently considering banning all plastic bags from large grocery and drug stores, citing concerns that the bags use too many fossil fuels, litter streets and harm wildlife. If the law is passed, stores doing more than $2 million in sales a year could only offer customers bags made of recyclable paper, plastic that can be turned into compost, or sturdy cloth or plastic bags that can be reused. The ban would take effect in about six months.

Plastic bags beach debris

Plastic bags are the fifth most common debris item found on beaches, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

"San Francisco is poised to be the first U.S. city to ratchet up its response against global warming," said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who wrote the legislation. "By doing so, we will save millions of dollars for city coffers and for our refuse rate payers."

Indeed, plastic bags do take their toll. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the United States alone more than 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are used each year. Worldwide, the number of plastic bags used is anywhere from 500 billion to 1 trillion every year. Meanwhile, Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic bags each year, according to the Worldwatch Institute, as only 0.6 percent to 1 percent of them are ever recycled.

In order to reduce this excessive use, several U.S. retailers have already begun to do their part. IKEA stores, for instance, announced their "bag the plastic bag" initiative this year, which includes charging customers a nickel for each plastic bag (and donating the profits to the non-profit conservation group American Forests). Whole Foods stores have a similar campaign in place in which they give customers 10 cents off their bill for each plastic grocery bag that they bring in and reuse.

Why, exactly, are plastic bags coming under fire from everyone from legislators to environmental groups? Although convenient, using plastic bags, they say, comes at just too high a cost. Consider these reasons why many say plastic bags should be banned permanently.

1. They Use up Natural Resources: The most common plastic bags you see today are made from polyethylene. This material is made from crude oil and natural gas -- both non-renewable resources.

"Every time we use a new plastic bag they go and get more petroleum from the Middle East and bring it over in tankers," said Stephanie Barger, executive director of Earth Resource Foundation in Costa Mesa, California. "We are extracting and destroying the Earth to use a plastic bag for 10 minutes."

2. They Harm Wildlife and Marine Life. Plastic bags are now ubiquitous in our environment, and animals both on land and in water are being strangled, choked and killed by them. Plastic bags are now the fifth most common debris item found on beaches, according to the Ocean Conservancy, and international coastal cleanups have turned up more than 354,000 stray bags each year.

Meanwhile, Planet Ark, an international environmental group, estimates that, worldwide, 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and other marine animals are killed by plastic bags each year.

3. They Create Litter. Plastic bag use is now so prolific around the world that the bags have become a major source of litter. Aside from polluting beaches and waterways, plastic bags blowing around streets in China are so common they've earned the name "white pollution." And in South Africa, the bags littering the countryside are called "national flowers." In some African areas, people are even "harvesting" the plastic bags to make bags, hats and other crafts.

4. They Take a Long Time to Biodegrade. Most plastic bags used either end up as litter or in landfills (less than 1 percent are recycled). In a landfill, it's estimated that one plastic bag takes about 1,000 years to biodegrade. A plastic bag floating around as litter takes about 20 years.

5. They're Expensive. It isn't costly to produce plastic bags, per say, but the estimated costs to retailers who give away plastic bags for free amounts to about $4 billion a year.

When it comes to the environment, paper bags aren't any better than plastic ones. The best bet (for the environment and to save energy) is to use a reusable cloth bag to do your grocery shopping.

6. They can be Hazardous to Humans. Plastic bags pose a suffocation hazard to people, particularly children, and pets. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) receives an average of 25 reports each year in which a child has suffocated from a plastic bag.

Are Paper Bags Better?

The plastic industry maintains that plastic bags are not the root of all evil. The problems with litter, they say, are due to irresponsible people and plastic bags, they're quick to point out, are better for the environment than paper bags. Is this true?

As it turns out, we're no better off (and may actually be worse off) using paper bags than plastic ones. Consider these facts from the EPA:

  • Paper bags generate 70 percent more air pollution and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags.

  • It takes 91 percent less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper.

  • The trees from which paper bags are made are a renewable resource, whereas plastic bags are made from non-renewable resources.

  • Paper bags take up more landfill space (2,000 plastic bags weight just 30 pounds, whereas 2,000 paper bags weight 280 pounds).

  • Paper bags in landfills don't break down much faster than plastic bags (because they're not exposed to water, light, oxygen and other elements that they need to biodegrade).

  • Paper bags are more likely to be recycled (about 20 percent of paper bags are recycled, compared to under 1 percent of plastic bags).

So we're not necessarily better switching from plastic bags to paper ones. Paper bags still account for a huge amount of wasted energy and refuse that is unnecessary. So what is the best option?

How to Reduce Waste and Protect the Environment (and Still Have Something to Carry Your Groceries In)

Many countries, including Australia, Bangladesh, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, Taiwan, and India have already taken action to ban or reduce the use of plastic bags, and with great success. In Ireland, for instance, a "PlasTax" of about 20 cents per bag (which customers have to pay) has been in place since March 2002. The tax has cut the amount of plastic bags used in the country by more than 90 percent.

In the United States, it may be some time before legislation prompts people to reduce plastic bag waste, but you can do your part now by reusing your plastic (and paper) bags or carrying a reusable cloth bag for your groceries. You only need to reuse a bag 11 times before you've helped to reduce the environmental impact of plastic and paper bags.

Recommended Reading

Pharmaceutical Pollution: What it is, and How Pharmaceutical Pollution Threatens Your Health

How Dangerous is it Really to Live Near a Landfill? (And How Near is Too Near?)

Sources March 8, 2007

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Whole Foods Market

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

The Worldwatch Institute

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