The Effect of Plastic Bags on the Environment

Despite common misconceptions, plastic bags are the most environmentally friendly option at checkout. They’re 100 percent reusable and recyclable, and studies show that alternatives which seem “greener” actually place a greater burden on the environment because they require more natural resources to produce and transport. On top of that, most alternatives to plastic bags aren’t even recyclable.1 Plus, studies show that bag bans and taxes don't meaningfully reduce litter or waste in our landfills.2

Plastic grocery bags are the greenest option at checkout and require fewer resources to produce and transport than common alternatives.

  • American plastic bags are made from natural gas, not oil. In the U.S., 85 percent of the raw material used to make plastic bags is produced from natural gas.3

  • Standard reusable cotton grocery bags must be reused 131 times "to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than" a plastic bag used only once.4

  • It would take 7.5 years of using the same cloth bag (assuming one grocery trip per week) before it's a better option for the environment than a plastic bag reused three times.5

Bag bans and taxes don’t reduce litter

  • Studies show that bans and taxes don't meaningfully reduce the amount of waste going into landfills. Without plastic grocery bags, people purchase replacement bags — often made of thicker, heavier plastic — and then send those bags to the landfill.6

  • The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that plastic bags, by weight, account for just 0.5 percent of the U.S. municipal solid waste stream.7

  • According to the 2015 Litter Survey Ranking conducted by Environmental Resources Planning, plastic retail bags comprise a very small portion – less than 2.0 percent – of litter.8

  • Also, to date, there is no proof that Washington, D.C.’s bag tax has done anything to actually decrease use of plastic bags or litter.9 According to a Washington Post investigation, D.C. collected roughly $10 million—since 2010—without making any environmental progress.10
  1. University of Oregon College of Arts and Sciences, "Paper or Plastic? The Answer Might Surprise You"; Fall 2012
  2. Environmental Protection Agency, “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures”; April 2016
  3. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "How much oil is used to make plastics?"; April 2016
  4. U.K. Environmental Agency, “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags”; February 2011
  5. U.K. Environmental Agency, “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags”; February 2011
  6. The Scottish Government, "Proposed Plastic Bag Levy - Extended Impact Assessment"; August 2005 and The Advertiser, "Bin line sales double nation average after plastic bag ban"; August 2011
  7. Environmental Protection Agency, "Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Tables and Figures"; December 2016
  8. Environmental Resources Planning, LLC, "ER Planning PR Bags Report Brief – 2015 Litter Survey Rankings"; 2015
  9. The Washington Post, "Tax data cast doubt on claims about declining use of plastic bags in D.C."; January 2014
  10. The Washington Post, "Is D.C.’s 5-cent fee for plastic bags actually serving its purpose?"; May 2015

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