Developed by the Swiss in the 1960s and introduced in the U.S. in the 1970s, the common ‘t-shirt’ plastic shopping bag took off in the 1980s as a cheap alternative to paper bags at grocery stores. In the 1990s the impacts of plastic pollution were becoming evident with marine life dying from ingestion of or entanglement in plastics and the ‘discovery’ of the Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre by Charles Moore.
Some people initially claimed that plastic grocery bags were better for the environment because too many trees were being cut down for paper bags. Over time it became clear that plastic bags also posed a problem as the simple convenience turned into a major addiction. By 2015 the average American used about 390 plastic shopping bags per year, often double-bagging and sometimes taking a plastic bag for a single item that’s already in a packaging or easy to carry. It’s becoming clear that reusable bags are the best alternative to any type of carryout shopping bag. Check out this blog post for info on the economics of plastic versus reusable bags.
For several years, Surfrider chapters around the country have worked to support plastic bag bans or fees to reduce plastic bag use and the impact plastic bags have on the environment. We're proud to say that these actions are proliferating! More info and resources at this site. In 2016, The Story of Stuff created this site that provides an interactive global map showing where plastic bags have been banned or taxed across the world. G. Cabrera has also created the map below identifying countries containing various forms of bag bans as of August 2017.
US E.P.A. estimates that 730,000 tons or 126 billion plastic shopping bags, were generated in 2015. Not only is this a huge amount of plastic bags (390 bags per person in the US in 2015), grocery bags only represent 6% of the total amount of plastic bags produced. Most 'conventional' plastic bags are manufactured from oil or natural gas and it is frequently referenced that somewhere between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used annually worldwide. Nearly 20 billion plastic bags are used annually in California and most end up in landfills or as litter. In addition to harming the marine environment, some estimate that producing 100 million plastic bags requires the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil (or natural gas equivalent) per year.
A huge problem with plastic bags, plastic bottles and other plastic materials is that they can take decades or centuries to degrade. Essentially, they're with us in the environment forever. Some plastics manufacturers claim their products are biodegradable, but testing and real world experience has yet to bear this out. More on this.
Also see the infographic and more information from our friends at One World One Ocean illustrating the harm plastic bags and other plastic materials inflict on the ocean.
Learn more about the humble, horrible plastic bag in this video. (Facebook)
Are bioplastic bags the answer? Read more about those here.
Rise Above Plastics!