Simple Steps. Big Impact.

So, what’s the problem with plastic bags?

Let’s start off with this brilliant, tongue-in-cheek mockumentary from HealTheBay.org about the plastic bag.

Here’s a little more detail:


How Convenience is Killing Our Planet – An infographic by the team at Arte Ideas

In a nutshell

The simple answer is:

  • plastic bags are made from fossil fuels – crude oil and natural gas – which continues to keep us relying on fossil fuel extraction.  Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
  • plastic bags may never breakdown into purely organic matter – and no one really know how long it will take even if they could.  Plastics haven’t been around long enough for science to catch up to the breakdown process. Some sources estimate more than 500 years.  We do know that plastics are breaking down in the ocean into plastic pellets.  These pelletized plastic then is small enough to be ingested by most marine life and flows up the food chain so that we humans also ingest the plastic.
  • less than 10% of plastics in the mainstream are recycled; the rest end up in landfills and waterways. Source: the balance small business

How did we get here?  1967: “The Graduate”

You, personally, can make a difference!

If you don’t live near the ocean you may not see the impact plastic bags are having on the environment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.  As it shows in the Majestic Plastic Bag mockumentary (above), plastic bags blow everywhere and often end up in our stream-ways and rivers which eventually flow into the oceans.

If you’re like most of us, this knowledge can feel completely overwhelming.

But we have good news!

Each step that each of us takes can make a great impact.  To quote philosopher Lao Tsu: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Here are some simple ones you can take.


 Solution #1: Quit using them

Well, that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?

Plastic bags are everywhere!

To get a sense of it, for one week put every plastic bag you receive into a box.  At the end of the week, you’ll be able to evaluate how many bags you actually bring home.  Include plastic bags from everywhere – the grocery store, farmers’ market, other shopping, gifts from friends, carry-out meals, wherever.

Then ask yourself, which of these really were not needed?

If you buy a book at the book store and it’s not raining and you’re just going home, do you need the store clerk to put it into  a plastic bag?

If a friend brings you a gift, could you take the gift out and as you hand the bag back to them, say, “Thanks for the gift, and I’ll give the plastic bag back to you.  I’m trying not to bring any into my home.”

Look at what you buy or carry and set an intention to do without plastic bags.  See Solution #3 for ideas on alternative bags that you can use instead.

Buy bags that attach to your purse or pocket and keep extras in the trunk of your car. ChicoBag is a great resource for these kinds of bags and they have a product made from recycled plastic bottles.  Chico Bags is  a certified BCorporation with a triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit.

How do you store food without using plastic?

It’s like learning a new skill!  Who knew there were so many interesting alternatives to the plastic bag to keep foods fresh?  One of my favorite articles is from My Plastic Free Life, How to store produce without plastic – check it out!  It lists each different kind of food with the simple solution for storing each one.

And this one, How to store leftovers without plastic from treehugger.com.

How do you shop at the grocery store or farmer’s market without using plastic?

Start off with the question: does this item need to be in a plastic bag?  You may find that the answer is “no” more often than not!

Many grocery stores do have paper produce bags available – if not, ask the produce manager if it would be possible for them to order some!

Keep your reusable or biodegradable produce bags with you when you’re shopping.  See Solution #3 for information about the types of eco-friendly bags that are available.

And the greenest solution is to have your own glass jars that you can use again and again at the store.  Here’s a great article that gives you the details of how to Skip the Plastic in the Bulk Section, Use Jars Instead.

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 Solution #2: Already have a bunch of plastic bags? Use them till they fall apart, then recycle them

If you have a lot of bags that you’ve been gathering up, there are some great craft projects that use plastic bags! Just search your browser for “plastic bag projects” and you’ll find a slew of ideas.

Is it okay to use plastic bags for dog waste?

Lots of people use plastic bags to clean up after their dogs.  And some people intentionally get plastic bags just so they have them for dog walks.

So the answer is a mixed bag (sorry for the pun!).

If you already have a bunch of plastic bags, go ahead and use them for dog waste.  But consider using a different method (like BioBags) for when you run out of the plastic ones.

If you continue to use plastic bags to clean up after your dog, that continues to support production of more plastic bags, and more reliance on fossil fuels.

Watch for a future EnviroTips article about dog waste!

How do you recycle them?

Did you know that you can recycle most plastic bags at your local grocery or box store?  Look for the recycling bin near the entrance.

Shake or rinse the bags out and let them dry. Believe it or not, the stores WANT your plastic bags!  They sell them to manufacturing companies to be made into recycled plastic products.

Here’s what Trex has to say about your plastic bags and why they want them to make their decks and fencing.

And it’s not just grocery bags, they want all your clean, empty plastic bags – from dry cleaning and product wrap.

But we cannot rely on recycling as a long-term solution, especially for plastics and plastic bags.  This article from January 2018 explains the problem that we face now that China No Longer Wants Your Trash.

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 Solution #3: Use reusable bags or ones made from environmentally-friendly materials

This article, Keep food safety in mind with reusable bags, will give you tips on reusing your bags.

You may have other bags around that you haven’t considered using for shopping.  For example, when I ordered organic sheets a while back, they were packaged in their own cloth bags.  These made wonderful produce bags for small items like berries and nuts.

There are a number of products on the market now for produce bags made from cotton, hemp, or other sustainable and washable bags.  One of my favorite sources is EcoBags.  Their bags are organic, fair trade, fair labor, and fair wage certified. And, they’re a certified BCorporation with a triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit.

If you want to find a way to save the cool artwork on your favorite t-shirt that just doesn’t fit any more, you can make your own produce bags – in any sizes you want!  Just take an old t-shirt and follow these simple steps!

Plastic alternatives – made from plants

And for those times you really need the functionality of plastic – moisture retention and leak-proof – check out plastic alternatives made from plant materials.  As crazy as it sounds, bags that function much like plastics are now being made from corn, soybeans, sugarcane waste, and algae.

One of the first (and still highly respected) companies making biodegradable produce bags is BioBags.  Their products are for sale in most environmentally-aware grocery and box stores as well as online.  In addition to their line of plant-based produce bags, they make dog waste bags too! Their bags are made from a resin derived from plants, vegetable oils and compostable polymers and can be consumed by micro-organisms that live in our soils.

The downside to these products is that they are only compostable if they are actually composted! Some cannot be composted in a home composting pile. So these bags, in many cases, will go to the landfill.

Beware that some “alternative” plastic bags that boast that they are biodegradable are just plastic bags with chemical additives that will allow the plastic to breakdown over time.  The base product is still a fossil fuel-based product.  Read more about these “Oxo-degradable” products here.

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 Go Deeper

What about using recycled plastic bags?

If you look at the printed words on many plastic bags, it shows that they are made from recycled plastic.  That’s a good thing, and great to have a market for recycled plastics.  But they are still made from fossil fuels and they may never break down into organic material.

If you have to buy plastic bags in bulk for a product you sell, for example, it’s better to purchase bags that are made from recycled plastic rather than to purchase brand new bags.  But remember that these recycled plastic bags still have an unknown life expectancy.

Better yet is to buy bags like the BioBags mentioned above although they can cost quite a bit more than the plastic ones.

If this increased cost is an important consideration for you yet you sell a product that shoppers expect to purchase in plastic bags, consider these options:

  • Request that your customers bring their own bags or containers
  • Charge customers a premium to cover the extra cost of a sustainable bag option
  • Have reusable packaging options available such as having a set of glass jars that the customer pays a deposit on and receives their deposit back when they return the jars
  • Research and brain-storm alternate packaging ideas through customer focus groups or environmental support organizations in your area

Overwhelmed?

Still feel overwhelmed about breaking up with plastic bags?  Try this article from treehugger.com: A beginner’s guide to plastic-free living.

There is an abundance of articles written about the plastic bag.  Here are a few that go into some depth:

Bottom line?

Education, intention, and awareness are the first steps.

The next steps are up to you.

Become aware of your use of plastic bags.  Thoughtfully decide which ones you can eliminate.

When you’re ready for the next step, research ideas on eliminating another group.

And then forgive yourself for those times when a plastic bag feels like the only comfortable option (for example: cleaning up dog vomit!)

One step at a time is a great way to start!

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 Resource Links

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Comment on this EnviroTip article

So, we’d love to hear how you’re doing with the suggestions in this EnviroTip!

Please comment below and let us know what works for you and what you tried that wasn’t so successful.

We know that in many parts of the U.S. this issue hasn’t yet caught the attention of the public, especially in areas that are not near a shoreline. We’re here to help you make this small change as painless as possible!

Check out our other EnviroTips too!

The Resilient Activist

The Resilient Activist enjoys sharing inspiring and nature-aware content from around the globe.  Hope you've enjoyed this article!
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