The Environmental Impact of Plastic Bags

plastic bags in trees

A huge number of plastic bags are used each year. A large proportion of them end up as litter. (Photo credit: bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock)

“Paper or plastic?” is a common question heard at the checkout line. Though the environmental impact of paper versus plastic bags continues to be debated, perhaps the best answer is “I’ve brought my own.”

The amount of plastic bags used annually around the globe is truly astounding — researchers estimate that between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are consumed every year — that boils down to one million plastic bags consumed per minute. What happens to these plastic bags after they’re done carrying your purchases from the store to your home? While some bags may be reused around the house or for other purposes, it is estimated that only between 0.5 and 3 percent of used plastic bags make their way to a recycling program, and millions end up as litter.

Once free in the world, plastic bags cause a variety of problems. Aside from being a general eyesore, plastic bags pose a major threat to animal life. Due to their lightweight fabrication and tendency to wave in the wind, animals often mistake the bags as a potential food source. If the animals don’t choke on the plastic, they may face starvation after the bag gets caught in their digestive tract, which prevents the absorption of vital nutrients. Plastic bags don’t just pose a threat to animals on land. Researchers estimate that every square mile of ocean has nearly 46,000 pieces of plastic in it. This plastic is harmful to sea mammals, fishes, seabirds, and other aquatic animals.

Plastic bags that find their way to a landfill will remain in the same condition for months to thousands of years. Rather than biodegrade as natural materials do, plastic bags photodegrade. This means that they chemically break down into smaller pieces through the absorption of sunlight over a long period of time. Of course, in a landfill situation, once buried underneath more refuse, plastic bags will not break down. However, photodegradation isn’t a particularly great result either, as the degradation of plastic leads to the release of toxic substances into soil and water resources.

Around the globe, some communities have chosen to take the plastic bag option off the table by banning their use outright or imposing a tax or fee for their use. In the United States, communities within Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington have all banned or added a fee to use plastic bags. Internationally, plastic bag bans or fees for their use have been enacted in communities within Australia, Bangladesh, Italy, Rwanda, and a number of other countries.

So, what to do in a world overrun by plastic bags? If you’re making a small purchase and can carry it, forego a bag altogether. For larger purchases, bring your own reusable bags. Reusable bags come in all shapes and sizes these days, including ones that can be folded down small enough to fit in your pocket. Or, if you are handy with needle and thread or a sewing machine, you could always make your own!

More to Explore
Are Plastic Bags Sacking the Environment?
The Environmental Impact of Plastic Bag Use
UCLA Report Urges New Global Policy Effort to Tackle Crisis of Plastic Litter in Oceans
The Best Reusable Bags
Fastest Recycled T-Shirt Tote Bag
Make Your Own Grocery Bag


  1. Brandyn Brewer says

    Plastic is taking over this world with all the trash lying around. More people should bring there own bags and keep reusing them and that could make a big change with in our economy’s trash and landfills. Also using reusable bags could help save many animals lives including their habitats where they live. Personally i think it should become a law for everybody to bring their own bags so that we can slowly start to help the economy and and animals.

  2. Brandon Hunsaker says

    Plastic bags are a great harm on earth. They cause countless problems and will not ever go away. Personally I think plastic bags should be taken away from all stores and be banned to use. There would be less harm for animals and we would have a cleaner earth, because no plastic bags would be in the streets or soaring in the wind.

  3. I think that more people should be educated about the harmful outcomes of using and not recycling a plastic bag. Before i read this, I had no idea that plastic bags could be deathly to animals and now I will double think about if I need to use one whenever i am in the position to decide. I also believe in having more selections at checkout lanes for an alternative to plastic bags.

  4. I disagree with using plastic bags due to the problems they cause to our environment. I hate the thought of animals consuming, or getting tied up in the plastic that is dumped out such as plastic bottles, plastic bags, or just about anything plastic that will sit and not break down. I remember seeing a picture of a dead animal cut open that had a variety of different plastics and bottle lids that the animal had consumed. Honestly, I believe that we should ban plastic worldwide. We already use glass and other materials, and it will help keep our environment cleaner and our animals healthier.

  5. Cassidy Russell says

    Plastic bags are a threat to many important factors in the world. They are polluting the environment and causing the death of many wild animals. Plastic bags are the easiest way for humans to do many things on a day to day basis. Plastic bags should be banned for all the damage they do and what they will eventually do in the future.

  6. My thoughts about this is that I agree with how the stats have this ban and fee for it because we need to protect our enviornmental problems and will cause the plants to die off and then the rest of the world will go as well

  7. Lauren Baird says

    The use of paper bags in today’s society is beginning to cause problem’s that exceed the convenience of a throw- away sack. The implementation of fees and bans on plastic bags is the correct choice of action. This will cause the amount of non- biodegradable bags in landfills to steadily decrease, and eventually come to a complete halt.

  8. Cassidy Russell says

    Plastic bags are a threat to many important factors in the world. They are polluting the environment and causing the death of many wild animals. Plastic bags are the easiest way for humans to do many things on a day to day basis. Humans need to come up with a more environmental way to use bags, such as reusable bags. Plastic bags should be banned for all the damage they do and what they will eventually do in the future.

  9. colson stovall says

    i think plastic bags are not a necessity for humans. i think a solution is, stores have there own cloth bags and walk your food out to your car then take the bags back. Another solution is stores offer discounts to shoppers for returning plastic bags for recycling.

  10. Plastic bags are clearly detrimental to the environment. I think people need to be aware and make an intentional effort to prevent plastic bag use. If someone has a small purchase they should not use a plastic bag and if they have a big purchase they should use reusable bags.

  11. Ashley Applegate says

    I think that the article did not address paper bags and compare them to plastic. Because plastic bags end up where they shouldn’t, other alternatives should be used. One option is bringing bags from home, but I don’t think many people will keep up with that option. I think paper bags are the best option of the two.

  12. Anthony Pelley says

    Biodiversity is something that’s not uncommon when it comes to a bunch of waste. The more and more our population grows we tend to make newer resources therefore we make more and more plastic bags and such. yet we seem to just throw away what we think is waste.

  13. Tyler Rigsby says

    Plastic is already taking over the whole world as it is, so using plastic bags is wrong just because it has plastic in it. Paper bags or something that biodegrade should be used instead of something that just breaks down into chemicals.

  14. Bo H Whitteker says

    Plastic bags are economical and make more sense for the buisness owner. The cheapness of them as well as the durability makes sense to use them. If evryone else is using them they why can they not. When the mindset changes from plastic to paper then you will see a change. Hopefully it is not too late

  15. Austin Baker says

    plastic bags are a great threat to many ecosystems on this planet. the plastic bags are eye sores and clog the oceans of the world. majority of the earths plastics end up as litter on land and also end up floating in the oceans. bans are put in place to discourage the use of plastic bags to help reduce the amount of plastic in the world. some of the plastic is mistaken by animals and eaten. and this ends up kiling the animals.

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