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The Trouble with Plastic Bags

Although plastic bag and thin film plastic recycling is now quite widely available in many grocery stores, most plastic bags are not recycled.  

The City of San Francisco estimates that after offering in-store plastic bag recycling for 10 years only 1% of bags were recycled. Nationwide it is estimated that only 3% of plastic bags are recycled.

Plastic bags do not breakdown in landfills. Most estimates state a breakdown period of 1,000 years or longer.  It is up to all of us to keep plastic bags out of landfills.

All too often thin plastic bags are put in curbside recycling bins and in blue public recycling bins meant for hard plastics, glass and aluminum and cans.  When plastic bags get into the system at a recycling facility that accepts curbside recycling, they snag conveyor belts and wheels in the sorting machines, bringing the whole process to a grinding halt.

Mike Tunney of Waste Management told the Chicago Tribune in March 2016 that he stops his recycling plant five times a day to remove the numerous bags clogging the machinery.  There are so many bags contaminating the line, workers can’t possibly snag them all.

Plastic bags clog up storm drains.  In San Jose, California, a plastic bag ban led to an 89 percent reduction in the number of plastic bags winding up in the city’s storm drains.  Using reusable bags helps keep trash off the streets.

Plastic bags are even found washing up on the shores of Antarctica.  Hundreds of millions of plastic bags are circulating in lakes and oceans. 80% of the plastic bags floating in the ocean originated from open dumps and not from ships.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags.

Four out of five grocery bags in the U.S. are now plastic.

What About Paper Bags?

It takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag compared to a plastic bag. (Film and Bag Federation, Society of the Plastics Industry)

Transporting paper bags to stores requires more energy than transporting lighter in weight plastic bags.


Bring Your Own Sturdy Reusable Bags

Reusable bags are the better choice over plastic or paper bags; but what kind of reusable bag?

Some stores have started handing out thicker, reusable plastic bags to replace the old single-use bags. Jordan Parker, founder of the environmental advocacy group Bring Your Bag Chicago, notes that the thicker reusable plastic bags require five times more energy to produce compared to thin plastic bags. They can harm the environment more than the single-use bags because it's unknown how many consumers are reusing the "reusable" bags and how many are simply throwing them away after only a few uses.   And although these bags can be recycled when they tear, energy is required to recycle them. 

Sturdy cloth and cotton string bags can be reused thousands of times and will last for years.  They can be washed to be kept clean for multiple uses.

What Do I Do With My Old Bags That I Already Have?

Green Minds LFLB believe that it is best to reuse them as many times as possible. Clean plastic bags can be reused to store other stuff in, they can be used to pick up after dogs rather than buying more plastic bags, they can be used for trash can liners.

The plastic bags, plastic film etc you cannot reuse can be brought to the stores for recycling.

Green Minds LFLB also suggests that you reuse your paper bags as many times as possible. When they can't be used any longer they are perfect liners for kitchen compost bins - it is a lot easier to get all the kitchen scraps out when you have a liner, and at the same time you use less water when rinsing the compost bin.

The BYOB Campaign has been endorsed by:

If you see this logo in a store window it means they support the Bring Your Own bag Campaign

Lake Forest Collaborative for Environmental Leadership Members are: