Exploring the alternatives

By Barb Krupiarz, Sierra Club

Estimates of plastic bag usage across the globe are between 500 billion and 1 trillion each year. With the conservative estimate, that is still almost 1 million bags used per minute. The US EPA estimates that less than 5% are recycled each year. Even if some bags are reused, the worldwide litter problem from plastic bags is still immense. And, the cost of these “free” bags to retailers is over $4 billion each year – another cost tacked on to the consumer.

So, what are the alternatives? Some say to recycle more. But, at 1 million bags used per minute, can we keep up with that rate for recycling? The American Chemistry Council sites the plastic lumber manufacturer, Trex, as the largest recycler of plastic bags in the U.S. with 1.5 billion bags recycled every year and making up 10% of their product. The problem is that U.S. consumers use 100 billion bags per year and the fact remains that plastics are a major cause of ocean pollution. In 2006, the U.N. estimated that oceans have 46,000 pieces of plastic in them for every square mile.

What about switching to biodegradable, cornstarch-based bags? There are several problems with this alternative. The first is that the cost to manufacture these bags is currently much higher than the cost of conventional plastic bags. These bags are made from roughly 5% starch, but also a petroleum-based polyester and don’t really degrade in a home compost bins or landfills. Finally, these bags cannot be recycled with ordinary bags and contaminate the recycling stream.

What about recyclable paper instead? While paper recycling is readily available, paper bag manufacturing still requires large amounts of natural resources and causes a significant amount of pollution.

The debate about plastic vs. paper still goes on today, but the bottom line is that the best solution eliminating disposable bags that have a life span of 12 minutes and replacing them with reusable bags.

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