The Plastic Grocery Bag: From Cradle to Grave

If your child ever asks you, “Mommy/Daddy, how are plastic bags made?” you will be glad that you read this article and prepared yourself for that difficult conversation! In fact, many adults can admit they are unfamiliar with the details of this story in addition to what happens after a plastic bag is disposed of. We engage with the plastic bag’s short lifespan from the grocery store to the waste container, but we may not spare a second thought about the environmental impact created by its production and disposal. However, the good news is that making a positive difference in this realm is an achievable task, we just have to be motivated enough to address our own habits and behaviors.

Conception: The Birds, The Bees, and the Barrels

The story of the plastic bag begins in deep underground reservoirs formed from the decomposition of organic materials that have been subjected to heat and pressure over millions of years. After the oil is drilled, it is taken to an oil refinery where it is separated into different types of petrochemical products, including ethane and propane which are then “cracked” into ethylene and propylene. Afterward, the product is processed and mixed with additives then melted down into small pellets. Those pellets are then shipped to manufacturing plants where they begin the process of melting, shaping, molding, and cutting the plastic bags for distribution to your local grocery store. The average cost of producing a single plastic bag is approximately one penny.

Due to the convenience (and low cost) of the plastic bag, producing them is occurring at a rapid rate across the globe (160,000 in a second!). The energy used to create the amount of plastic bags used in the world is the equivalent of a car driving approximately 415 billion miles in a year. If you placed all of the world’s annual consumed plastic bags side by side, it would circle the Earth seven times! These are mind-boggling statistics that highlights our society’s dependence on convenience and consumption.

Life: The Purpose of the Plastic Bag

It’s fair to say that the plastic bag provides our society with a utility. It’s an effective way to move our groceries from the cart into the trunk of the car, then from the trunk of the car to the inside of our homes. In fact, plastic bags are used, on average, for about 12 minutes. The entire purpose of its conception in the modern world is to lug around your groceries, and, if the bag is lucky, it can be reused to carry other items or used as lining in a small trash can. However, plastic bags are created with the intent of being disposable, not durable.

Now compare the short-lived utility of the bag to its entire lifespan; a plastic bag can last anywhere between 500 and 1000 years. That means, the plastic bag you used for 12 minutes can potentially live long enough to meet your 30th generation great-grandchild! It seems like such a waste going through the motions of extracting oil from the ground and refining it into a substance that will last for centuries, especially when you consider how little they are utilized.

Death: The Bag that Never Truly Dies

If plastic takes centuries to degrade, then where does it end up in the meantime? You may be surprised to learn that an estimated 1% of plastic bags are recycled, which means the other 99% has to end up somewhere else. Best case scenario is they end up in a landfill. However, plastic bags are difficult to control. They are light and airy which means they can easily be picked up and carried by wind gusts that litter our neighborhoods and communities. However, the problem stretches far beyond annoying litter.

Unlike other organic matter, plastic does not naturally decompose. In fact, it only breaks down into smaller pieces of plastic, commonly referred to as “microplastics”. Arguably, a fully intact plastic bag on the ground (or in a tree) can easily be collected. But once it breaks down into microplastics, the particles are hardly visible to the human eye (the diameter of a small earring stud or less). It’s very likely that we are consuming microplastics on a frequent basis without even realizing it! For example, a study showed that 94% of US tap water is contaminated with microplastics in addition to 93% of popular bottled water brands. It’s also widely known that the fish we are eating are also consuming microplastics (although it’s unclear whether the plastics travel to other parts of the body besides the stomach). Surprisingly enough, microplastics have also been found in sea salt, honey, beer, and even dust that gets into your home (and onto your food)!

There is relatively little research at the moment to understand the impact that microplastics have on our health, but chances are it’s not doing us any favors. We already know the effect it’s having on the ecosystem, especially animals. Earlier this year, a young whale was found dead with nearly 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach! And that’s just one of many stories. The most gruesome part of all is that the plastic inside the dead animal will remain after the rest of the body decays. In other words, the longevity of plastic allows it to create a continuous cycle of harming our wildlife over and over again.

Afterlife: The Reincarnation Process

How is it that only a small fraction of plastic bags are recycled when we have recycling centers and programs across the country? It’s true that plastic bags are recyclable, but it’s important to understand HOW to recycle them.

Unbeknownst to many people, placing plastic bags in your recycle bin can do more harm than good because they can easily clog up recycling center machinery causing operational delays and expenses (and the bags are likely to end up at a landfill after they are cut out anyway). Due to the slim margins of these material recovery facilities (or “MRFs”) high contamination rates may cause them to pass their costs down to customers or even shut down permanently!

Instead, collect your plastic bags (and other clean plastic film) at home and drop them off at your local grocery store or use the Plastic Bag Drop-off Locations directory to find other locations that accept these materials. After the plastic film is collected, it will be baled and resent to manufacturers to create composite lumber, containers, pipes, and of course…new plastic bags.

However, the best method of the “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle” mantra is to REDUCE! This can easily be accomplished by bringing cloth bags to the grocery store and using mesh bags for produce. By reducing our consumption of these materials, we reduce the demand, which therefore diminishes production.

Where do we go from here?

Plastic bags are only a small part of a larger plastic problem on our planet. However, it can be resolved by individuals who have the intent on changing their behavior. Remembering your reusable grocery store bags may be cumbersome at first, but over time you will develop a routine habit. However, there is a bigger picture here. Once you start eliminating plastic bags from your life, what other changes can you make? What other small sacrifices will you be able to commit to and how can these commitments scale to your local community, the company you work for, or even your industry? How differently will you start to view the world?

Convenience has become an integral part of our culture and lifestyle. We have reached a point in society where we must decide how we prioritize our values. How does our love for convenience compare to our values of protecting the environment and human health? We can start to make changes today, but that can only happen if we are actively conscientious with our efforts.

What changes can you make today?

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Crystal Clear

I talk TRASH about the waste industry and plastic pollution. I also cover social issues because injustice is garbage. Follow me on Twitter @we_are_garbage