Every year, 380 billion polyethylene plastic shopping bags are used in the United States. About 100 billion are recycled. The rest find their way into landfills, waterways, and other natural areas. The bags may take up to 1000 years to decompose, and in the meantime, they can do significant damage to the environment.
An estimated 1 billion seabirds, mammals, and other animals die every year from eating them, usually because they mistake them for food. The bags can even become serial killers, as they are released back into nature when the animal decomposes and can be swallowed by another animal, repeating the cycle.
Plastic bags can also clog sewers and other drainage systems. In 2002, Bangladesh banned the bags after they contributed to severe flooding in urban areas due to blocked drains.
Plastic shopping bags are made from petroleum by-products, so their production shares many of the same environmental impacts as oil and gas production. It takes an estimated 430,000 gallons of oil to manufacture 100 million plastic bags.
A growing number of local and national governments are seeking, like Bangladesh, to ban the use of plastic shopping bags. San Francisco became the first United States city to implement a ban in 2007. Other regions, including the Republic of Ireland, have implemented a plastic bag tax in an attempt to discourage use.
Plastic Shopping Bag Alternatives
Fortunately, there are a number of green alternatives to plastic polyethelene shopping bags, including biodegradable bags and cardboard boxes.
However, the most popular eco-friendly shopping bag alternative is probably reusable cloth shopping bags.
As awareness of the environmental impacts of plastic shopping bags has grown, more and more people are switching to reusable shopping bags and the variety of bags available has increased greatly.
Five Great Reusable Shopping Bags To Protect Your Groceries and the Environment
Here are five great reusable shopping bags that can help you eliminate thousands of plastic bags over the course of their lifetimes.
The ultra-compact Workhorse, from ACME Bags, is a full-size bag of durable nylon that can hold up to 25 pounds, yet folds down to fit inside a minisack attached to the bag. When folded, the bag is small enough to fit in your palm. Sturdy and practical, the Workhorse is water and mildew resistant, machine washable, and available in a variety of colors, including black, pink, orange, and blue.
Recycled designer handbags are all the rage in the fashion world and now you can enjoy the same stylish look with shopping bags! The Alchemy Goods Recycled Ad Bag is handmade in the United States from recycled vinyl mesh ad banners, with handles made from recycled seatbelts and a rubber grip made from recycled bicycle inner tubes! Machine washable, each lightweight but super-durable bag is available in red, maroon, blue, or white color schemes.
European-style string shopping bags are especially great choices for carrying produce. Many string shopping bags are plain white, but ECOBAGS EarthTone Cotton String Bags are beautifully colored in rich, jewel-like tones. Available with long or short handles, the bags also come with a small hemp stuff sack for easy carrying when not in use. When they are in use, they amaze checkers and bags with their stretchability – they carry up to 40 pounds!
Another cool recycled bag, the Bazura Bags Large Insulated Lunch/Grocery Bag is handmade from recycled juice containers by women’s cooperatives in the Philippines. Local schoolchildren collect discarded juice containers, which are then purchased by the cooperative and used to create these stylish bags. The juice containers have insulating properties and the reusable shopping bags are great for transporting groceries from the store to the freezer, or keeping a sack lunch or picnic cool until you are ready to eat.
These stylish yet durable cotton totes have about the same size and carrying capacity as typical paper grocery bags, yet last for many years of use. Made in the United states, they are machine washable and have sturdy nylon handles.