The UnGreen: Plastic (and, yes, paper) shopping bags

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iStock_plastic bag with swans

Over 500 BILLION plastic bags are consumed per year… almost 1 million per minute. And…

  • 3,300 US children die from asphyxiation from plastic bags
  • Plastic bags take 1,000 years to biodegrade, if they biodegrade at all
  • An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is used per year to produce
  • In the US alone, 100 BILLION plastic bags are consumed annually–that’s more than 1,200 bags per resident
  • There is an estimated 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of the ocean. (Check out my entry, “World’s Biggest Landfill…in the Pacific Ocean?”

Here’s a quirky video about one plastic bag’s journey:
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Paper bags come with their own, er… baggage.

  • More than four times as much energy (BTUs) is required to manufacture a paper bag compared to a plastic bag.
  • It takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it takes to recycle a pound of paper. But… only 10 to 15% of paper bags are recycled. Only 1 to 3% of plastic bags are recycled (Source: Wall Street Journal)
  • It takes 14 million trees to produce 10 billion paper grocery bags . Forests (major absorbers of greenhouse gases) have to be cut down, and then the subsequent manufacturing of bags produces greenhouse gases.
  • A toxic chemical solution is used in the production of kraft paper.
  • Millions of gallons of these chemicals end up in our waterways each year, settle into the sediments and works its way through the food chain.
  • Further toxicity is generated as both plastic and paper bags degrade.
  • Paper bags generate 70% more air pollutants and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags
  • Each new paper grocery bag is made from mostly virgin pulp for better strength and elasticity.
  • Paper in today’s landfills does not degrade or break down at a substantially faster rate than plastic does. And with the lack of water, light, oxygen and other elements necessary for degradation, nothing completely degrades in today’s landfills.
  • A paper bag takes up more space than a plastic bag in a landfill, but because paper is recycled at a higher rate, saving space in landfills is less of an issue.

One high quality reusable bag used has the potential to eliminate an average of 1,000 plastic bags over its lifetime!

You’ve heard it before: reusable shopping bags are the best option. UNLESS:

  • You go on a reusable shopping bag shopping spree and end up with a closet full that you’ll never use. Figure out how many grocery bags you typically use and start there. You’ll find most totes can hold lots of stuff compared to plastic or even paper bags. That means faster loading and unloading!
  • They’re not durable, requiring you to replace them often.
  • They aren’t made from non-biodegradable or non-recyclable material OR recycled materials.

My fave shopping tote is made Fair Trade from reclaimed food bags. It’s durable, holds a ton, saved a perfectly good item from landing in landfill and also helped someone earn a fair living.

You’ll forget to bring the reusable bags to the store.

That’s as inevitable as death and taxes. It’s happened to me more times than I care to tell you. Instead of letting myself off the hook by accepting paper or plastic bags, I have the groceries reloaded right back into the cart. Loose. The cashier doesn’t make this easy by asking “Are you sure?” at least twice. Then they’ll give me a “You must be one of those loonies” look as they slowly, with their eye still on me, scan then place each item back into the cart as if waiting for me to tell them they’re on hidden camera and we’re all going to have a big laugh. Disclosure: about a month ago I was absolutely exhausted and incoherent. I didn’t say yes or no–not that they asked–I just watched in a daze as they packed my groceries into paper bags.

NOTE: If you somehow end up with a plastic or paper bag, please reuse and/or recycle it.

Your voice counts!

Sign the petition to ban plastic bags in your city and share this with friends and family. Then just say no–with a smile–when someone offers a plastic bag to you.

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2 Responses

  1. […] Plastic Bags… Harmful to the Earth and Our Children’s Future […]

  2. Good article, and so true.

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