Plastic Bag Facts; The Scoop On Plastic

Plastic shopping bags pose an enormous impact on the environment and its inhabitants, when not recycled. Of all the polluters our planet crosses daily, plastic bags should be considered lethal and banned. The issue with plastic bags is the fact when they are not recycled they end up in the throats & stomach of wildlife, clogging gutters and sewers, and floating in waterways. Plastic bags are dangerous to all types of sea life because they are flexible, and shaped just right to trap an animal or get wrapped around an animal’s neck or fin. If the bag gets stuck over a creature’s head, it can suffocate or starve.

Plastic bags pose a particular hazard to the environment when they make it into our oceans. Over 70% of the world is covered by water, and there are thousands upon thousands of miles of coastline where the bags can wash up. Once the bags are in the water, they aren’t easily biodegradable- meaning that they can remain there for hundreds of years. Plastic bags are not biodegradable, they actually photodegrade. Meaning plastic bags break down into small toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways.

North America and Western Europe account for nearly 80 percent of plastic bag use. Each year, Americans throw away some 100 billion polyethylene plastic bags [1], which is an enormous amount of trash to hit landfills or environment. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. With an estimated cost of $4 billion to the retailer, you as the consumer are paying for the plastic bags, as the cost is factored into grocery costs.  Australians consume about 6.9 billion plastic bags each year, that’s 326 per person. According to Australia’s Department of Environment, an estimated 49,600,000 annually end up as litter.

Let’s take a look at some plastic bag facts (UPDATED- Numbers do vary by news source)

* Approximately 1 billion seabirds and mammals die each year by ingesting plastics. [2]

* Less than 1% of all plastic bags are recycled in the U.S.

* Supermarkets around the world are encouraging shoppers to ditch plastic bags by offering a small per-bag refund or charging extra for plastic.

* Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris found most often in coastal cleanups.

* According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA), in 2001 there were somewhere between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags used around the world. Of those, one to three percent end up as litter.

Plastic bags have become popular because they are inexpensive to produce and waterproof. However, the durability that makes them so good at holding our groceries makes them very harmful to the environment. They never fully degrade (they leave a kind of plastic dust that can pollute the Earth for hundreds of years). Because of that, it’s absolutely essential that we recycle them whenever possible, and keep them out of landfills and waterways. Or better yet, refuse plastic bags and use reusable bags!

Sources: 1. Worldwatch Institute, Good Stuff? – Plastic Bags,
Source: 2. ABC News- Just One Thing: Green Your Grocery Bags (May 09)
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16 thoughts on “Plastic Bag Facts; The Scoop On Plastic

  1. Plastic as a marine issue: As an experienced international diving instructor and marine biologist, I beg to differ on what can commonly be found within our oceans. broken glass, masses of paper and a variety of metals (often toxic) are as common, and if not as damaging to both people, marine life and pollution (elevated concentration levels), to your suggestion of the effects of plastic. Whilst I acknowledge that plastic pollution is a chronic problem, it is human behaviour which needs to change as opposed to the material itself. Having lived in developing countries and countries surrounded by water such as The Maldives, it is education which is needed for a countries population and not hasty legislation.

    I wonder how many of your active anti-plastic movement regularly spend time underwater and truly understand the socio-economic factors which have lead to this situation in the first place? Banning plastic will not work –visit a developing nation or one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) with highly populous cities and rapid economic growth and try to reason with them why they should ban a material which has such ease of use?
    As a pro-environmentalist I feel it is important not to jump onto the ‘environmental wagon’ and immediately advocate the benefits of banning plastic – surely as a scientist it much more important to identify the behavioural traits and consumption patterns which are responsible for creation of the society we find ourselves within presently.

    The current debate over oxo-biodegradable versus bioplastic (hydro) seems to be industry experts instead arguing over technicalities (namely what it means to compost as opposed to bio-degradation) rather than commending the progress made with technological innovation. Therefore what is needed is clarification on what these terms, and whether both forms can be compared to one another, which I believe they cannot?

  2. Regardless of the exact figures, plastic bags are detrimental to the environment. This is a particularly frustrating eco-dilemma because there are so many reasonable alternatives. My company, Charleston Naturally, sells several bags/totes that are perfect for carrying groceries and are attractive and sustainable alternatives to plastic.

  3. Thanks for paying attention to the details

    My agenda is to only challenge the new internet media that is often startup and erroding journalism with cut and paste.

    It really is a tough fight unless the numbers and sources are kept correct.

    Why is it that if I ask for facts to be checked and I find it a Sunday hobby to fact check stories promoted on Twitter that now I am accused of being someone “who PROFIT from plastics in some way”. I am just someone that questions the establishment of media…

    I am not the journist commited to values just a reader…geez…when did journalism come to this.

    • Hi Jeff,
      I appreciate your comments, as they made me dig a bit deeper into the sources I used for this actual topic. I do not know if you profit from plastics or not, I am simply saying that anyone who does not see the big issue at hand of plastic bags and the environment, must be involved in some way.

  4. Tara,

    Also found this at the University of Missiouri Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute website Code of Ethics of the Media Council. I think number one really says it all.

    Code of ethics
    1 – The public has the right to know the truth. Therefore journalists have a duty to report the truth either as representing objective reality or representing what the source says fairly, accurately and objectively.

    • Jeff,
      While I find your efforts to prove me wrong, a bit compelling, your making no points here. The links you provided do not say that my info is incorrect (or the other 1000’s of websites online).

      Take some time and look at the Worldwatch Institute, which if you look above I gathered some information from. If you review the information it clearly says and I quote “Only 0.6 percent of plastic bags are recycled.”

      You can review it at

      • Jeff,
        After reviewing more information sources, I have made a few adjustments to information and stated info does vary by source (just to ease the minds or people who are threatened by numbers).

        At any rate the issue is still at hand. Plastic bags are BAD for the environment, and it has been stated time and time again. The only people who do not believe it are the ones who PROFIT from plastics in some way.

  5. Tara,

    In my quote I pointed to recycling industry stats thats why it was not in the NOAA link.

    As for the NOAA link you did state Billions of birds and mamnals were killed and NOAA specifically states:

    “We are so far unable to find a scientific reference for this figure. The closest we have found is “214,500 to 763,000 seabirds are killed annually incidental to driftnet fishing by Japanese fishermen in the North Pacific Ocean”

    As for the 100s of studied and documentation…I would pause and ask are there 100s of studies or simply reports and internet sites repeating the same cut and paste.

    I found the source of your 1 Trillion bag quote this afternoon too and it appears that was not an EPA quote. Could you please provide the source of the EPA quote?

    Here is what I found…actually National Geographic reported that a man trying to sell reusable bags developed those numbers…(seems a bit self interested)

    “cording to Cobb’s calculations extrapolated from data released by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 on U.S. plastic bag, sack, and wrap consumption, somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags”

    That is a 100% probable error rate and he never provided his calculation method or numbers. Interesting

    Can you help by providing some sources? I understand you got the quotes from another source but maybe the real news is that they are not accurate.

    Don’t get me wrong we should be recycling plastic bags and not using them when we don’t need to. But numbers like a billion animals dieing a year really seem like shock journalism (again it wasn’t your quote but another). And apparently NOAAA agrees. Maybe a cool article would be to find the real numbers and impact so people could act.

    Maybe it is because the numbers are so obviously inflated people fell like they are being manipulated and so few are acting….

    Please don’t let us be duped…what are the real numbers!

    • I believe as new information become available and more studies are completed, the numbers will fluctuate a bit. The exact number does differ slightly from the NY Times, Tree Hugger, and other well know information sources.

      Let me show you some sources I used

      From Earth First site…
      “America also uses an astounding 100 billion plastic bags per year” So, if the US alone used 100 billion the quote of “500 billion and one trillion plastic bags used around the world” seems right.

      From A Lighter Footprint….
      Less than 1% – Percentage of all plastic bags that get recycled in the U.S.
      88.5 billion – Plastic bags consumed in the U.S. last year.

  6. * Approximately 1 billion seabirds and mammals die each year by ingesting plastic bags.

    –When fact checked against the NOAA website it showed this was a false claim. They even debunked a number as low as 100,000 being false

    * Less than 1% of all plastic bags are recycled in the U.S.
    –this is a quote from 1999 but 2008 industry data shows 12% recycled

    –Australian study shows that the reason recycling was so low was due to the fact that most are reused as bin liners, pet waste etc…

    –when worldwatch site cited here was checked no none of their data was cited to any study or document.

    It appears you may have been duped

    • Jeff,
      I do not think I have been duped at all. There are 100’s of studies and documentation on plastic bags. Hopefully new studies will release this year with some updated information.

      I tried to see find the 11% difference you referenced in the NOAA link you provided and did not see anything related. (perhaps I missed it?)

      The only thing I found within 12%, is the top 10 marine debris, 12% is plastic bags. (

    • Jeff,

      Does that make you feel better? Do you have nothing better to do than disparage an honest attempt to remind people of one of the many ways we are harming our environment?? Even if I trusted your recycling figure of 12% for plastic bags (given that it is supplied by the American Chemistry Council) rather than 1% – it’s still not enough and we can and should try to recycle more! Can’t we aim for a 100% rate? No, I guess people like you would rather hide your head in the sand and pretend a problem didn’t exist if it’s at all inconvenient to do something about – even something so simple as carry an extra reusable bag or two in your car.
      Your own link to the NOAA website does NOT clearly debunk the numbers of marine mammals killed each year due to plastic litter. And, ironically, the NOAA website you refer to actually shares the same message, and I quote: “Everyone, no matter how close to or far from the ocean, can contribute to the solution. It’s simple: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle – (1) Try to reduce the amount of trash you produce (e.g., try to purchase items with minimal additional packaging); (2) Make use of items that are reusable rather than disposable; and (3) when you do use disposable items, remember to recycle! “
      Perhaps you are threatened by Tara’s suggestion that plastic bags be banned. Do you work or a plastics producer Jeff? What is your agenda?


      • Hi Jana,
        Did you see a quote of 12%? I reviewed the links and no where saw a quote of 12%. I have done a massive amount of research on it, and everything I find “reliable” all references 1%.

        • Tara, no I did not, however I did not look for it either, to be honest. I was simply questioning the figure because it is being provided by someone with a vested interest in making the numbers seem good, the American Chemistry Council!

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