Plastic Bags: Minimizing the Damage


Each year, millions of Americans consume, purchase and/or use billions of plastic bags (grocery, pharmacies, food, takeout, clothing and other purchases). Did you know that it takes anywhere from 400 to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade? The ubiquitous plastic bag is made out of polyethylene, and happens to be one of the hardest materials to degrade naturally.

So, what exactly happens to all those bags that get thrown in the trash?


• Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.

• According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.

• According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion)

• According to the industry publication Modern Plastics, Taiwan consumes 20 billion bags a year—900 per person.

• An estimated .7% or 49,600,000 end up as litter each year.

• Four out of every five bags handed out at grocery stores are plastic.

• They are rarely recycled and don’t degrade in the natural environment, much less in a landfill.

Primary source & for more information, see Trellis Earth.

SOLUTIONS: Where do we start?

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the biodegradable bags, e.g. the corn bag. So what’s out there? Is this really a solution?

Biobag among others have come up with a fully biodegradable and compostable plastic bag solution.
Their bags are apparently made from a proprietary Mater-Bi, which contains GMO free starch, biodegradable polymers and other renewable resources. No polyethylene is used in the production process. Biobag uses a new plastic derived from corn and supposedly fully composts in 30-60 days (in commercial composting conditions).

Trellis Earth seems to offer another solution through their plastic bag line as well as alternatives to other plastic goods (all fully biodegradable).

What about paper bags?

According to Trellisearth, paper bags can be even worse than plastic bags.

‘Paper sacks generate 70 percent more air 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. And paper bags can’t even be used in composting programs and don’t decompose any faster than plastic bags once they end up in a landfill.’ Source:

Like Biobag,Trellis Earth’s biodegradable bioplastic bags are also made from corn polymers, starches and complimentary ingredients.


Of course, these bags are not readily available yet. Demand is still relatively low, and cost higher, so its not as easy as asking your local grocer if they can pack your groceries in a biobag. However, the more we ask, the more we will get.

Its important to remember that convenience plays a huge role (not to mention cost). So if a plastic bag is all that is available on our errand on the way home from work, guess what? Most of us will take the plastic bag and go (myself included!).


(1) Companies need to make it easier for consumers to make the right choices.

(2) Likewise, we consumers need to put pressure on our favorites companies.

I believe that plastic bag alternatives should to be readily available at stores and businesses should encourage customers to bring their own bags (it will save them money too!). Trader Joe’s does a great job at this. There is a weekly lottery for people who bring their own bags even, in addition to their selling their own line of reusable bags. Whole Foods is also moving in the right direction as well. By putting pressure on our local businesses to make these choices available, we will make it clear that these decisions matter and we all want to be part of the solution.

(3) Bring an extra bag with you wherever you go. Leave one in the car, and pack one in your bag. There are plenty of compressible bags on then market (eg the chico bag) that fold-up and hat can fit into any handbag or purse.

(4) Finally, if the damage has already been done and you have a mountain of plastic bags in your recycling bin, there are creative things you can do with them! Take one woman who has figured out how to fuse used plastic bags together to make sturdier, fasionable, re-usable larger totes. She laso makes waterproof liners, wallets, and and floor cushions. For more on this, see Lifehacker on fusing plastic bags for grocery shopping.

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