By Lisa Kaas Boyle, Esq.
You know the obvious reason why plastic bags blow. They are light-weight wind socks that catch the air to travel greats distances and heights. Found blowing across every freeway, plastic bags have become known as Urban Tumbleweeds. Plastic bags clog our storm drains, and litter our shores. In the oceans they become mock jellyfish, endangering the sea life that depends on real jellyfish for nutrition. The list below takes us beyond the obvious and literal reasons why plastic bags blow to some facts that might surprise you. How many of these facts did you know?
1. Californians use 19 billion single-use plastic bags a year, amounting to 147,000 tons of unnecessary waste that doesn’t biodegrade. A single reusable bag, on the other hand, can last for years and be used thousands of times before it enters the waste stream or is recycled.
2. Single-use plastic bags are nearly impossible to recycle. Despite all the lobbying by the plastics industry to push recycling of plastic bags, the rate is less than 5% in California. Because they are thin and lightweight, recycling plastic bags is difficult and the return on the effort to recycle them is minimal or non-existent. In Los Angeles County, over 90% of the bags collected in municipalities surveyed ended up being shipped to a landfill rather than recycled, due to contamination from food or pet waste, and the tendency of plastic bags to jam recycling machinery.
3. The typical plastic grocery bag is manufactured from polyethylene, a byproduct of petroleum and natural gas – both nonrenewable resources that create more greenhouse gases and increase our dependency on foreign oil. The energy used to make about 9 plastic bags is equivalent to the energy it takes to drive a car one kilometer, or more than half a mile!
4. There are no free plastic bags! The cost of plastic bags is 3-5 cents buried in the purchase price of your groceries or consumer goods. Then, there is the clean up cost for plastic bag pollution… One study found that the cost of cleanup amounts to 17 cents a bag, that translates to the average taxpayer paying about $88 per year on plastic bag waste – What a waste!
5. What if every disposable plastic bag you used this year was still in your car? That would be around 600 bags per shopper in your family. These bags are designed to be used once and thrown away, but where do they go? The majority end up in our landfills, choke our rivers and storm drain systems, and make their way to the ocean where they threaten marine life.
6. According to The Wall Street Journal, Americans go through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion.)
7. During a three-hour clean up on International Coastal Cleanup Day in 2008, plastic bags were the second most common trash item found on beaches, lakes and streams, accounting for 1.4 million bags!
8. Discarded plastic bags are so common in our environment that in a catch basin cleanup of along the Los Angeles River, plastic film and bags were 43% percent of all trash collected!
10. California taxpayers spend $25 million just to collect and landfill plastic bag waste each year. That figure does not include external costs, e.g., resource extraction and depletion, quality of life issues, economic loss due to plastic bag litter and loss of wildlife due to plastic bag consumption.
China, Mexico City and at least 40 countries and municipalities around the world have banned plastic bags (representing at least 25% of the world’s population). In 2008, the Ocean Protection Council called upon the California Legislature to ban or place consumer fees on commonly littered items, including plastic single-use bags. The United Nations Environmental Programme Secretariat has also called for a worldwide ban of plastic bags. The California Senate is currently considering a single-use plastic bag ban.
For more information and to send a letter supporting the California Single-Use Bag Reduction Act (AB 1998) please see: