Plastic Shopping Bag Facts

According to American Plastic Manufacturing, a pro-plastic bag source, the average per capita plastic bag use is 500 bags a year.  They claim this amount is the equivalent of half a gallon of gas.  Alone, this amount seems paltry.  But imagine 500 plastic bags clogging ditches, clinging to tree branches, blowing through fields and sinking in lakes and rivers.

Enviro Girl did a little math and that per capita bag use means her family of five would then use 2,500 plastic bags a year.  A city of 10,000 people would use 5,000,000 bags a year.

Like so many environmental issues, the problem has to do with the big picture numbers.  Sure, a half gallon of gas per person per year seems negligible.  Once you start multiplying bags by the number of Americans and then figuring out plastic bag use over a 10-year period, the amounts are staggering.

The plastic and petroleum industries are fighting bag bans across America.  Their concern is that plastic bag bans are a gateway to banning other plastic products.  They staved off a recently proposed ban in California by spreading fears of job losses by plastic bag manufacturers.   But like the smoking bans of a decade ago, the bans are taking hold in municipalities and counties, creating a patchwork of places banning the use of plastic shopping bags.

The other argument Enviro Girl often hears against banning plastic shopping bags is “What will I use to line my wastebaskets?  How will I dispose of Fido’s poop in the park?  I reuse my plastic bags!”  Enviro Girl’s rebuttal of this weak argument is simple:  even without plastic shopping bags, you can still find plenty of plastic bags to reuse for other purposes–bread bags, bags from shipped packages, the bags from inside cereal boxes.  She gave up plastic shopping bags years ago in favor of canvas bags and still has no shortage of plastic bags as a byproduct of ordering from Lands End or buying bread.

Most recently Oregon is considering a statewide ban, notably supported by the Northwest Grocers Association.  Like the land and water pollution caused by those plastic bags, the bans are beginning to add up.  Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for a state or local legislature to make a law stopping you from using plastic bags.  You can choose to reduce your 500 bags a year by switching to reusable shopping bags!

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10 thoughts on “Plastic Shopping Bag Facts

  1. I’ve been using canvas bags for shopping for about 4 years…but I must admit that I fall into the group that once or twice a month gets the plastic shopping bags so I can reuse them for trash. I definitely see the wisdom in using cereal box bags and bread bags for small things…like cleaning the litter box. But what should I be using for the trash can?

    • I’ve found plastic bags inside packaging that I can use for trash can liners–clothes orders usually come mailed inside plastic bags, too. For larger trash cans (kitchen sized) I tie off the bottom of the bags our drycleaning comes in and they work just fine. I do buy kitchen garbage bags, but only one package a year. The rest of my bags come to us through other packaging.

      • Good tips! Unfortunately I rarely order anything online nor do I own any clothes that need to be dry cleaned! But I’ll keep my eyes open for other places that plastic bags may pop up unexpectedly!

  2. Another plus for canvas shopping bags — you can carry a lot more at once. I just walked in from a small-med sized shopping trip — 3 full canvas bags (milk, ice cream, cat food included), and I managed to carry all three of them from the car into the house in one trip. I don’t think I could have managed if everything was in 20 plastic bags. When it’s 30 degrees outside, every little bit helps!

  3. The daily newspaper comes in small plastic bags, too – often unnecessarily, in my humble opinion. When those bags are big enough (Sundays), I use them to package books that I mail for Paperbackswap.com. The weekday bags are such a waste – lacking a dog to walk, those bags go straight into the garbage.

  4. Using the same math, my family of four would average 2,000 bags in a year. Luckily, we don’t not even when you factor in other bags besides plastic shopping bags. Still, I think we have room for improvement.

  5. I’d really like to see a charge for plastic bags rather than a nickle back if you bring a reusable one. They did this in Ireland and I believe it’s had a huge impact. People will actually THINK and go back to their cars if they are going to be CHARGED (and I’m talking like 10 cents here) where just earning a nickle back, eh? they’ll try to remember next time. Plus, stores are paying for those bags and passing the cost onto us, so they *could* lower other costs to offset the bag costs.

    • Washington DC instituted a tax on plastic bags (the same thing as the fee) about a year ago. The result was a 90-95% reduction in the use of plastic bags within the first month. The monies raised are going towards clean up of the Anacostia River.

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