Plastic Bag Alternatives

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Plastic bags are one of our icons of convenience culture.  Some people say that the tossable plastic bag is the most common consumer item out there, with trillions of examples loose in our waste stream and our environment.  The hazards of the plastic bag start with its production, since they’re made from petroleum products (with all the impacts of using fossil fuels) and the inks used in some bags contain lead and other toxic colorants.

Then the bags have to be transported to stores, using fuel on the way, and purchased or given to customers.  Each year in America alone, over a hundred billion plastic bags are tossed.  Some of them have only ever carried one small item – it’s standard for anything you buy to be placed in one of these bags, and you’ll get one unless you request otherwise.  Throwing away that many bags is the equivalent of throwing out about twelve million barrels, all full of oil.

Only about one percent of the bags we use are recycled, if you look at world numbers.  For the US by itself, that number rises to two percent.  However, almost all bags are thrown away, and they’ll never decay.  Whether they’re spending forever buried in a landfill, or they’ve been tossed by the side of the road and blown away, plastic bags don’t leave us.

They don’t necessarily stay put when landfilled, either.  Plastic bags can be lifted by the wind and carried miles away.  Once they’re in the air, these bags become a nuisance in streets, get hung up in trees and on fences, clog drainage systems, and wash into water systems and eventually out to see.  There’s a huge raft of floating trash – mostly plastic bags and bottles – floating in the Pacific Ocean, and it’s only growing larger.  Right now it’s about twice as big as the state of Texas.  Birds take bits of bags to their nests, animals accidentally eat them or get tangled in them, and bags leach toxins into the water, too.

Some countries are choosing to ban or otherwise take measures against this plastic menace, as are some cities in the US.  In Oakland and San Francisco, for instance, you have to use either paper bags with high recycled paper content, or bring your own.  Taxes on bags in Ireland have reduced usage, and incentives by some stores (such as a nickel off your bill for every bag you don’t use), have increased the number of bags brought from home.

So what are your options if you’d like to stop using plastic or cut down on how many bags you use?  There are quite a few, and it’s easy to make the switch.  You can make bags on your own (knitted, knotted, or crocheted string bags or sewn totes), or purchase a number of ready made bags.  In many areas, stores are offering more durable bags made from paper or cloth for a relatively low initial cost.  Look for reusable bags that fold up small enough to be kept in a purse, satchel, brief case or car trunk, so you’ll be more likely to remember them.

For situations where a reusable bag doesn’t work, such as a trash bin liner or for pet waste, investigate recycled or biodegradable options.  It’s true that biodegradable plastic doesn’t degrade very quickly in landfill conditions, but it’ll last for fewer years than regular plastic.  Avoid using a plastic bag when you don’t have to, and you’ll be making a real difference for the world around you.

Photo by: Henry Bonn –

Related posts:

  1. Green and Earth Friendly Plastic Bags
  2. Go Green and Avoid Using Plastic Bags When Shopping
  3. Plastic Containers Helpful Buyers Guide
  4. Recycling Styrofoam
  5. How to Save Some Trees
  6. Purchase Recycled Paper to Help a Bird


  1. goo says:

    It’s really hard to be good on this issue. I do very well with routine shopping trips and generally remember my rucksack or cotton bags. But the other day I went out of my way to buy peat-free, organic compost – it came in biodegradable bags – but as I’ve learned they will be pulled out of our local authorities ‘brown bin’ scheme as apparently biodegradable isn’t the same thing as compostable! I’ve had no choice but to send them to landfill. All I can do is hope by this time next year I will have made enough compost of my own.

  2. Dave Green says:

    One company I know is making use of the “stuff” by using it as padding in their recycled inner tube padded bags. Not only is this good recycling, it also a quick reminder that we cand find ways to reuse and reduce along with recycling! ReRides are bags made from used inner tubes and other items – even candy wrapper purses!

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