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Toxic Bags: What you didn’t know about your shopping sack

published in The Co-op Connect, a newsletter of the Cleveland Food Co-op March 2007

Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic shopping bags are consumed worldwide.  In the US during the 1980s and 90s, plastic bags largely replaced paper bags, due to their low cost. US retailers still spend an estimated $4 billion on plastic bags, which is passed on to consumers in higher prices. Many question the economics of plastic bags, however, citing their toxic effect on the environment.  

Environmental Impact

Plastic shopping bags are usually made of polyethylene, popular for its economy and versatility, which requires 1000 years to degrade. The bags do not biodegrade, but photodegrade, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest it. 

So commonplace are plastic shopping bags in the form of litter, they have earned nicknames worldwide, known as “witches knickers” in the UK, “white pollution” in China, the “national flower” in South Africa, and “urban tumbleweeds” in the US.

In Africa, the bags are so prevalent that a cottage industry has sprung up collecting the bags and reusing them to weave into hats, bags, and other items.

The bags are also notorious for becoming windblown and catching in trees and shrubs. According to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation, plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales, and other marine animals die each year from mistaking discarded bags for food. 

Plastic shopping bags are usually made of polyethylene, popular for its economy and versatility, which requires 1000 years to degrade. The bags do not biodegrade, but photodegrade, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest it. 

The manufacture of polyethylene bags requires petroleum and natural gas, both non-renewable resources. That the bags are a petroleum product only aggravates our dependence on oil and the accompanying problems resulting from its excavation, transportation, and use. Oil and natural gas consumption contributes to global warming, destruction of ecosystems, and pollution.  

Government Intervention

                To combat the litter and environmental impact of plastic shopping bags, several nations have taken legislative action. In October 2001, Taiwan introduced a ban on the distribution of free single-use plastic bags by government agencies, schools, and the military. The ban was expanded to include supermarkets, fast food outlets, and department stores, and will eventually apply to street vendors and food dealers. Disposable cutlery and dishes are also banned.

                In March 2002, Ireland introduced the PlasTax, a tax of about $.13 for each plastic bag, which reduced the country’s consumption by 90%.

                Simultaneously, Bangladesh banned polyethylene bags outright in the capital, Dhaka, after the bags were found to have clogged sewage drains, resulting in the 1988 and 1998 floods that submerged two-thirds of the country. This ban has led to growth in the manufacture of jute bags and other sustainable and biodegradable alternatives.

                In the US, there has been no federal action to reduce plastic bag waste. In January, San Francisco’s attempt to introduce a bag tax fell through when grocery chains successfully lobbied to change state law to prohibit a bag tax and the counting of bags by local authorities. 


Conservation Suggestions

Due to the lack of progress by US federal and local governments, efforts to reduce plastic bag consumption falls to consumers themselves. It is an unfortunate myth that paper bags have less of an environmental impact than plastic bags, thereby making them a preferable choice for ecologically-minded consumers.

Paper and plastic have relatively equal environmental impact. Paper bags require almost four times as much energy to produce as plastic bags. In 1999, 14 million trees were cut to produce the 10 billion paper grocery bags used by Americans that year alone. According to the Federal Office of the Environment in its 1988 study, “Comparison of the Effects on the Environment of Polyethylene and Paper Carrier Bags,” paper sacks generate 70% more air and 50 times more water pollutants than plastic bags. This pollution comes from the method of manufacture, which is to heat wood chips under pressure in a chemical solution. Additionally, it takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it does a pound of paper. Ultimately, neither paper nor plastic are environmentally sound products for disposable consumption.

                Conservation-conscious shoppers seeking to reduce the over-consumption of plastic shopping bags can address their own consumption by reusing bags. Cloth bags come in a variety of designs and colors. The most popular types are ordinary unbleached canvas bags with straps for carrying. Longer straps are convenient for carrying over the shoulder. String style bags expand to carry many items, more than their small size would suggest.

Some people find it difficult to remember to bring their bags with them, so ultra-compact nylon bags are convenient since they can be carried in a purse, backpack or pocket so one is always handy. For those who travel long distances to grocery shop, insulated bags protect hot or cold items from cooling or melting. One can also simply reuse the disposable bags they already have.

                The small plastic bags available in grocery stores for produce items are completely unnecessary, as like items can be grouped together for weighing and then carried in the same cloth bag. Interestingly, these bags are only used for about an hour, but last 1000 years.

Shoppers buying bulk items can bring their own containers to reuse, such as reusable plastic storage containers, or empty packaging like yogurt containers or tomato sauce jars. These containers can be weighed empty to find the tare weight, which is subtracted from the total weight upon purchase.

Consumers can additionally contribute to conservation efforts by purchasing items with little or no packaging materials, or buying recycled and biodegradable items. Some companies, including Newman’s Own, have introduced biodegradable packaging for some of their items.

The Food Co-op offers cloth canvas bags with the Co-op emblem on it in both a long and short strap form in unbleached cotton and recycled materials. The Co-op also carries string-style bags in a variety of colors for sale. has a multitude of bag styles and related accessories, as well as information and advocacy items.  As their website declares, “Plastic Bags Blow: Bring Your Own Bag.”












































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