Plastic bags have been ingrained into our way of living. Americans use an estimated half-million plastic bags every minute.

They are convenient for many things, like a grocery bag or food storage. Unfortunately, all this plastic has to go somewhere. And the world is now full of it. Our oceans are choked by it and it’s poisoning our food as marine life consumes more and more of it.

But you can help by answering one simple question: Do you throw away or reuse plastic bags?

By refusing, reusing, or recycling our plastic bags, we can cut down on the number that winds up infecting our food chain.

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Table of Contents

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Lifespan of a Plastic Bag

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Plastic Bag Pollution

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What to do with Plastic Bags

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TL;DR

Lifespan of a Plastic Bag

The working lifespan of a plastic shopping bag is about 12 minutes. Think about that for a moment…We use billions of these things, but only for 12 minutes each. What a waste.

Don’t believe me? Just think about it:

How many times have you made a purchase, the store clerk put it in a bag, and you trashed the bag as you walked out the door? That’s what, 30 seconds?

How long does it take you to get from the grocery store checkout to your home and unload groceries? Less than 10 minutes?

“But I use it to clean up after my dog too!” Ok, what does that add to the working lifespan of the bag? Another few minutes maybe.

So even when you account for longer-term uses like food storage or trash bins, when the majority of plastic bags only last a trip out the door, or a trip home, you can see the average start to drop rapidly.

What’s my point? Simple, there are half a million plastic bags going in the trash every minute, after being used only once and only for about 12 minutes.

Do you throw away or reuse plastic bags - Plastice Bag Infographic
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And, yes, I know, they have a longer total life span if you consider manufacturing to actual end-of-life (when you put it in the trash). But most of that time is just spent taking up space. So why count it?

Even if you did count it, based on the massive quantities we burn through as a society, we’re probably only talking a few days in the entire life cycle of a plastic bag. 12 minutes of which are actually useful.

Plastic Bag Pollution

Plastic bags are the most common form of litter. Why? Because they are lightweight and they catch the wind like a parachute, floating off into the great, wide world.

The wind blows them out of trash bins, garbage trucks, and landfills. They make their way into the water systems and rivers, then the current takes them to the ocean where marine life gets trapped in them, or swallows them, or suffocates in them.

Meanwhile, all the chemicals in them (do they make BPA free shopping bags?) leach into the water and we drink it, or the animals we eventually eat drink it.

And if they do manage to eventually break down into microplastics—because they won’t actually degrade completely—then little fish confuse them for food and eat them. And bigger fish eat those fish, and those are eaten by something higher up in the food chain. Until eventually, we humans eat that.

Do you throw away or reuse plastic bags - Microplastics in food chain
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So our dinner was likely exposed to whatever toxins were in those plastics. I have always been squeamish about eating animals. And now I’m super paranoid about eating fish. Which is a shame because I love sushi.

I talk a lot about single-use plastics and how much pollution they cause because this is one of the most important topics impacting climate change.

It’s not the only issue, there are many, but this is one that can be directly and immediately impacted by humans. It’s the choices we make every day about whether we bring our own shopping bag, use a silicone food storage bag instead of a disposable plastic one, or even just to recycle the plastic bags that we do have.

What to do with Plastic Bags

Refuse

Refuse plastic bags at the store. Either bring your own bags or just carry your items out by hand.

A while back I was at the store for groceries and picked up a birthday card as well. I had brought my own bags to use, but the bagger decided the card needed its own special plastic bag. I made him take it back.

Now, this was pre-coronavirus, so I assume they just kept and used that bag for someone else. But even if they hadn’t, I was letting that clerk know that not everyone wants a plastic bag, and maybe next time he’ll ask before he assumes. And if that’s the case, it was worth it.

But don’t stop there. You can refuse plastic trash bags too! Check out these alternatives to plastic trash bags.

Do you throw away or reuse plastic bags - Plastic Shopping Bags
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Now that we’re in a pandemic and many stores aren’t letting us bring our own bags. I have started asking them not to bag anything at all. I just put it back in the cart and bring it out to my car and bag it right there using my own bags.

Reuse

There are plenty of uses for plastic shopping bags:

  • Use it for a small trash bin.
  • Use it to scoop your cat litter or clean up after your dog.
  • Use it as packaging material when shipping something or moving.
  • Use it to carry your lunch to school/work

I’ve also seen lots of craft videos for things you can do with plastic bags. I’m not a crafty person, so I haven’t tried any of those. But if you’re into that check out these Google search results of crafty things to do with plastic bags.

My only complaint about the craft idea is that many of them seem to be using unused bags and leaving behind a lot of scraps.

The list could go on, I’m sure, and these things are better than just throwing the bags straight into the trash. But none of these uses really solve the ultimate pollution problem. Ultimately, most of these uses lead to the trash bin.

Recycle

You can recycle most plastic bags, including shopping bags and food storage bags, like Ziploc bags or the bag your bread comes in, but not in your curbside recycling. You’ve got to take them to a special recycling bin. You can usually find a bin at your nearest retail or grocery store, just hit up Google for more info.

Recycled plastic bags are usually made into composite lumber and sold for decking and fences, or they are used in things like playground equipment.

Do you throw away or reuse plastic bags - The 5 Rs
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What are the benefits of recycling?

Glad you asked. In all things, using recycled materials in production costs significantly less water and energy than using virgin materials.

In the case of plastic bags, recycling them also gives them a much longer useful life span. I mean, how long does a deck last? Or a playground?

Recycling your plastic bags takes them from a life span of a few minutes, maybe hours to potentially decades!

But before you start recycling all your plastic bags, read up on how to recycle food storage bags and make sure you do it right!

TL;DR

My original question to you was, “Do you throw away or reuse plastic bags?” By now you’re probably wondering if it was a trick question. Yes, it was.

As far as I’m concerned, plastic bags may well be the most prolific killers in the history of humankind…too dramatic? I don’t think so, they basically just float around in the world until some poor animal suffocates, gets tangled up in it, or chokes on it. I suppose you could classify it as manslaughter since they aren’t actually capable of forming intent…but the point is the same: plastic bags = bad.

So I leave you today with a different question that what we started with: Why do you even need a plastic bag in the first place?

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