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When Katy Perry asked us all if we ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again, the metaphor in her song “Firework” implied that those plastic bags would get a second chance, a new beginning. And while she’s correct that plastic bags can often be seen drifting through the wind, that’s where the literal interpretation of the lyric, and the life cycle of those bags, ends.
I know single-use plastic bags can sometimes seem easier — you may have become dependent on them over the years because of their convenience. And it’s frustrating when you forget to grab your reusable grocery bags on the way to the store.
My theory is that if you have cute, aesthetically pleasing bags, you’ll be more likely to want to use them and less likely to forget them. Stasher bags will make your food storage look chic. Baggu bags are simply a functional accessory.
Plus, due to sweeping plastic bag bans by cities, states, and retail chains, they’re no longer available at many stores. And if you want one of the more eco-friendly bags they do offer, you probably have to pay a fee. (Sure, that may only be five cents, but it’s the principle.)
You (or at least, I) also end up hoarding a random collection of paper or soft polyester bags with the intention of reusing them, until your drawer or cabinet is so jam-packed that you have to throw them away. It may not be plastic, but it’s still a waste.
Why should you avoid plastic bags?
Even if it’s tempting to use a plastic bag for whatever reason, it’s important to keep in mind that the environmental impact of the plastics industry is dire. According to a 2021 report from the Bennington College Beyond Plastics project, the industry emits at least 232 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to the average emissions from over 100 coal-fired power plants.
Environmental policy expert and Beyond Plastics founder Judith Enck explained that plastic bags are made from toxic chemicals and that ethane, a byproduct of hydrofracking, is used in their manufacture; they are rarely if ever recycled. Plastic recycling in general hasn’t been a success story, she said, but film plastic specifically is stockpiled because there aren’t reliable markets for it and it can literally clog up the recycling system.
“Never ever put a plastic bag in your recycling bin because when it gets to the recycling center [a material recovery facility], it gets stuck in the gears of the equipment and causes major problems,” Enck said.
People get confused because plastic bags will have the recycling logo on them, but you have to take them to a specified drop-off location if you want to recycle them. Enck said those drop-off bins are often filled with garbage and nothing ever gets recycled. And when it is stockpiled, it not only creates a fire risk, but will also often be intentionally incinerated.
The 2021 report explains that the burning of plastic waste releases an enormous amount of CO2 and carries the highest climate impact of any sanctioned waste management practice.
Plastic bag bans have shown some promise of reducing this plastic waste. New Jersey, for example, enacted a statewide ban on single-use paper and plastic bags in 2022, and a beach sweep by Clean Ocean Action found almost 40% less store/shopping bags that year than it had the year prior. (Eight states now ban single-use plastic bags.)
“The environmental impacts of plastic bags are immense, and the evidence is everywhere,” Enck said. “In the springtime, I urge everyone to look up before the leaves come in on the trees and you’ll see a lot of plastic bags in trees, and also obviously it’s littered, it gets into storm drains, gets into streams, and then the ocean. The alternative is so easy. It’s bringing a reusable bag to the store with you. It is not hard.”
Most people will use reusable bags hundreds if not thousands of times, she added, but even if you just reuse the bag once, you will increase the environmental benefits of reusables.