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Plastic Bag statistics
  • It takes 1000 years for a plastic bag to decompose.
  • 1,460 Plastic bags are used each year by an average U.S. family.
  • 12 million Barrels of oil are used to make the plastic bags each year for just U.S. consumption.
  • Less than 1% of all plastic bags get recycled in the U.S.
  • 88.5 billion plastic bags were consumed in the U.S. last year alone.
  • A million plastic bags are used every minute, worldwide, and the number is rising.
  • Roughly 60-80% of all marine debris, and 90% of floating debris is plastic.
  • Plastic resin polymers are so durable that it can take hundreds of years for plastics to break down at sea, and some may never truly biodegrade in the marine environment.
  • Each year, the State of California spends approximately $25 million to landfill discarded plastic bags.
  • The City of San Francisco alone, estimates dealing with plastic bag litter costs about 17 cents per bag, totaling $8.5 million annually.
  • As the annual consumption in LA County is an estimated 6 billion plastic bags.
  • Plastic bags (which resemble jellyfish or sponges) are mistaken for food or prey by seabirds, marine mammals, fish, and sea turtles.
  • More then 1 million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die annually through ingestion of and entanglement in marine debris, including plastic bags.

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The Numbers....Believe It or Not
Introduced just over 25 years ago, the ugly truth about our plastic bag addiction is that society's consumption rate is now estimated at well over 500,000,000,000 (that's 500 billion) plastic bags annually, or almost 1 million per minute.
  • Single-use bags made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are the main culprit. Once brought into existence to tote your purchases, they'll accumulate and persist on our planet for up to 1,000 years.
  • Australians alone consume about 6.9 billion plastic bags each year, that's 326 per person. According to Australia's Department of Environment, an estimated 49,600,000 annually end up as litter.
  • In 2001, Ireland used 1.2 billion disposable plastic bags, or 316 per person. An extremely successful plastic bag tax, or PlasTax, introduced in 2002 reduced consumption by 90%.
  Why Jute
  • According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. An estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many plastic bags.
  • Four out of five grocery bags in the US are now plastic.
  • Plastic bags cause over 100,000 sea turtle and other marine animal deaths every year when animals mistake them for food.
  • In a dramatic move to stem a tide of 60,000 metric tons of plastic bag and plastic utensil waste per year, Taiwan banned both last year. .
  • According to the BBC, only 1 in 200 plastic bags in the UK are recycled.
  • According to the WSJ Target, the second-largest retailer in the U.S., purchases 1.8 billion bags a year.
  • As part of Clean Up Australia Day, in one day nearly 500,000 plastic bags were collected. Unfortunately, each year in Australia an estimated 50,000,000 plastic bags end up as litter.
  • The average family accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store.
  • Each high quality reusable bag you use has the potential to eliminate an average of 1,000 plastic bags over its lifetime. The bag will pay for itself if your grocery store offers a $.05 or $.10 credit per bag for bringing your own bags.
  • Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up harvesting bags and using them to weave hats, and even bags. According to the BBC one group harvests 30,000 per month.

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Plastic Bag Consumption Facts
  • Each year, we consume an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.
  • According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.
  • Americans alone discarded more than 3.3 million tons of low- and high-density polyethylene bags, sacks, and wraps in 2000 (EPA).
  • The U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually.
  • Taiwan consumes 20 billion bags a year-900 per person (industry publication, Modern Plastics).
  • Four out of every five bags handed out at grocery stores in the USA are plastic.

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Estimated Cost of Plastic Bags in US
  • Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion (source

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Environmental Cost of Plastic Bags
  • Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food.
  • Turtles think the bags are jellyfish, their primary food source.
  • On land, many cows, goats and other animals suffer a similar fate to marine life when they accidentally ingest plastic bags while foraging for food.
  • Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.
- Sources ( and verdavivo blog)

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Recycling Facts
  • Plastic bags are rarely recycled, merely 1-3% currently in the US
  • Plastic bags don’t degrade easily in natural environments nor landfills. In fact they do not biodegrade, they photo-degrade, which can take up to 1,000 years breaking into smaller and smaller particles (often toxic to surrounding ecosystems).
  • It is more expensive to recycle plastic bags and bring them back into the marketplace than to create new ones.

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Curbing and Banning Plastic Bag Consumption
  • One of the poorest countries in the world, Bangladesh has banned plastic bags since 2002
  • China has even banned free plastic bags (resulting in 27 million barrels of oil saved)
  • San Francisco has banned plastic bags in stores
  • Certain counties in NY have banned plastic bags and LA has imposed strict limitations
  • Whole Foods and Trade Joe’s have banned plastic bags
  • Some retailers offer incentives to bring your own; few however impose an extra cost for plastic bag use
So where does the solution for change lie?

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Consumption Externalities
Most of the problems associated with plastic bags are consumption externalities. These externalities occur so readily because nearly all of the over a billion bags consumed per day are given out for free.  People overuse plastic bags because although the price of the bags is included in the cost of the item, people don't realize that they are paying for them.  Although we don't realize it,  plastic bags cost consumers in US approximately 4 billion dollars in increased good costs per year.
Plastic Bag Use by Industry in Australia
A large plastic bag externality is how to dispose of them once they are used. Plastic bags can be recycled into other plastic bags; however, this is rarely the case. According to the EPA only 1% of plastic bags were recyled in US in 2004.  Most plastic bags are not recycled instead they wind up in landfills, in the ocean, or even as litter.

The plastic bags that end up in landfills take up valuable landfill space. It is estimated that 8 billion plastic bags per year enter the waste stream in the US alone. A typical landfill costs more than twenty million dollars to build and millions more per year in order to maintain. 
Nearly all of this money comes from taxpayers. California alone estimates that landfilling plastic costs taxpayer more than $750 million per year (BEC). California landfilled more than 17 million cubic yards of plastic or about  a quarter of everything landfilled (BEC). California costs are less than many other places because only 80% of California's plastic bags were littered or ended up in a landfill (BEC). This is compared to some places such as Ireland where only a small percentage of plastic bags is recycled. There are additional costs as well. Eventually the landfills will leak and can cause immense environmental damage.  There will be large costs associated with cleaning up these messes in the future.  Plastics in general makes up between 14 and 28% by volume of waste in general. Around the world over 200,000 plastic bags are dumped in landfills every hour (
Plastic bags in general take anywhere from 20 to 1,000 years to breakdown in the environment. This is a very long period of time; however, eventually they would breakdown and disappear. Once in a landfill though, they never breakdown. Modern landfills are designed so that nothing in them breakdowns.  This means that as space becomes more of a premium something eventually will need to be done with the bags. There is a huge cost to this. Some may justify the cost by discounting the costs to the future but on this timescale it makes
any future cost irrelevant. All of these factors cost taxpayers billions of dollars over the years.
The plastic bags that are not put in the waste basket end up as litter.  Litter is a huge burden on society. Litter is so pervasive in some parts of the world that in South Africa plastic bags are called its national flower.  In China plastic bags cover the streets and are known as white pollution. Plastic bags cover the streets, clog drains and gutters, and are even linked to disease.

Litter costs alot of money to clean up. The City of  San Francisco estimates that it alone spends about 8.5 million dollars on cleanup and disposal of littered plastic bags. CalTrans, the agency responsible for California's roadways,
spent 16 million dollars on cleaning up litter on freeways. This number excludes the work done by volunteers or businesses participating in the adopt-a-highway program. 
This number also excludes the cost of a living in a dirty city. Residents of a city gain value from it being clean. This value can't be computed easily; however, with a proper survey you could determine people's willingness to pay for a clean city.  Another cost of living in a dirty city is decreased tourism. I doubt people would visit a city merely to see the dirtiest city on the planet. It is more likely it would be the other way around. More tourist will come to a clean city than a dirty one.

Possibly the largest and most problematic externality caused by
plastic bag consumption is environmental damage. Click next to explore this issue.

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Environmental Damage
The environmental damage caused by plastic bags is enormous. Plastic makes up 80% of the volume of litter on roads, parks, and beaches and makes up 90% of floating litter in the ocean (BEC).
The Carcas of an Albatross Filled with Plastic
In every square mile of ocean there are over 46,000 pieces of plastic. This puts an enormous strain on the environment. The little pieces of plastic act as a sort of sponge for chemicals. They soak up a million fold greater concentration of such deadly compounds as PCBs and DDE (a breakdown product of the notorious insecticide DDT), than the surrounding seawater ( Marine life then eats these pieces and dies. It is estimated that over a 100,000 different birds, seals and whales die every year ( After the animal dies its carcass decomposes and the plastic is free to roam the ocean and kill again.
When plastic bags find their way into the ocean they kill endangered turtles. Plastic bags are injested by turtles who confuse them for jellyfish, their primary food source.  The turtles then suffocate.

Plastic bags  wrap themselves around living coral and quickly kill them. This has become a huge problem for Australia, whose Great Barrier Reef is being threatened by little white bags of death. Plastic bags trap seals and sea lions, prevent whales from digesting and kill birds by the thousands.
A baby seal caught in a plastic bag
  Despite what some economist tell you, you can not put a price on the environment. Many of these animals have existence values that are immesurable. If people realized the destruction that is done to the environment or the amount of animals that die from their  over consumption of plastic bags, I'm sure they would switch to a reusable bag.

Not only do we need to limit people's consumption of plastic bags but also we need to make sure that the bags that are consumed are recycled and not merely littered into the streets.

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UN calls for global ban on plastic bags to save oceans
The UN’s top environmental official called for a global ban on plastic bags yesterday. "Single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program.

Steiner’s call comes after the U.N. Environment Program released a comprehensive report on litter in the world’s ocean, which identified plastic as the most common form of ocean litter. When plastic enters the marine food -chain it can devastate marine life and even affect humans when they consume seafood that have eaten plastic debris.

The plastic problem is so bad that a floating island of plastic debris has been discovered in the northern Pacific which is double the size of the United States.

China and Bangladesh have both banned plastic bags, while Ireland has reduced plastic bag consumption by 90 percent by levying a fee on each bag. Such measures have only just reached the United States: San Francisco is the only city to ban plastic bags, although Los Angeles will have a ban in place next year. New York City rejected such a fee on bags last year, but Washington D.C. is considering a 5-cent-fee this week.


Such a ban is being tested in China, where transgressors may be fined up to $1,464. A national survey reported that the number of plastic bags handed out in grocery stores fell by 40 billion after the law was implemented. Ireland has reduced use of plastic bags by 90 percent through a per bag levy. In the US, San Francisco has established a plastic bags ban, while Los Angeles is set to implement one in 2010 and Washington, DC, will soon vote on a five-cent-per-bag tax.

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Retailers exceed carrier bag reduction target
26 February 2009

New figures show efforts by retailers and consumers delivering results

New figures released today by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) show the UK’s leading high street and grocery retailers have exceeded a voluntary target to reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags by 25% by the end of 2008.

Since 2006, retailers have delivered a 40% reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags, as measured by the reduction in the amount of virgin plastic used. Retailers have achieved this by reducing the number of carrier bags issued by 26%, increasing recycled content used and reducing carrier bag weight.

The target to reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags was part of an agreement with UK Governments and industry in February 2007 which has been met in full by a reduction in bag numbers alone.

This achievement also reflects the active engagement of consumers, who have helped to make it happen.

Dr Liz Goodwin, WRAP CEO said:

“Consumers deserve congratulations for these results as they clearly show we are moving away from using bags once to re-using bags often.  They are also a credit to retailers who have worked hard to find innovative ways of helping us re-use our bags.”

Over the past two years, WRAP has been collecting data and monitoring initiatives by retailers that help reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags including encouraging re-use through reward schemes, promoting bags for life and charging for bags.

The data shows that initiatives by retailers to reduce the environmental impact of carrier bags have resulted in a 23,000 tonne reduction in the weight of carrier bags issued. The total number of bags in circulation has reduced from 13.4 billion in 2006 to 9.9 billion in 2008, equivalent to a 26% reduction.

Jane Milne from the BRC said:

“Congratulations to all our customers and check-out colleagues who have done so much to achieve this result. With this first target met and exceeded we are now working to halve the number of bags taken by May this year.  We need every customer to help us by remembering their bags for life on planned shopping trips and, where they do need to take an ordinary carrier bag, re-using it on five or six shopping trips before returning it for recycling.  Together we can do it!”

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Editor's notes:
  1. The agreement was between 21 of the leading high street and grocer retailers and Defra, the then Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Office. The agreement was actively supported by the Packaging and Film Association (PAFA) via the Carrier Bag Consortium.
  2. WRAP’s role in the agreement is to monitor the progress of the agreement through data collection and analysis. The members of the agreement issue their respective data to WRAP voluntarily. WRAP’s remit from the signatories is to issue the results for carrier bag reduction targets across the industry as a whole and not to release individual retailer data.
  3. The target was a 25% reduction in the environmental impact of carrier bags. This is being measured by looking at a reduction in the number of carrier bags issued and the amount of virgin plastic which provides a simple way to measure environmental impact.
  4. Participating retailers are as follows:
    • Asda Wal*Mart
    • Boots
    • Co-operative Group
    • Debenhams
    • DSG International plc (Currys and PC World)
    • E H Booths & Co Ltd
    • Home Retail Group (Argos and Homebase)
    • John Lewis Partnership (John Lewis and Waitrose)
    • Marks & Spencer
    • Next Group plc
    • Nisa Todays
    • Primark Stores Ltd
    • Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd
    • Somerfield Group
    • Spar (UK) Ltd
    • Tesco
    • Travis Perkins (Wickes)
    • Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
  5. A further agreement between the Scottish Government and supermarkets has been made. Defra, the Welsh Assembly Government, and the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment have also made an agreement with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and its supermarket members. Both agreements aim to reduce the number of single use carrier bags issued to consumers by 50% by the end of May 2009. WRAP has agreed to monitor progress against these targets. The participating supermarkets are Asda Wal*Mart, Co-operative Group, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd, Somerfield Group and Tesco.
  6. WRAP works in partnership to encourage and enable businesses and consumers to be more efficient in their use of materials and recycle more things more often. This helps to minimise landfill, reduce carbon emissions and improve our environment.
  7. Established as an independent company in 2000, WRAP is backed by government funding from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  8. Working in seven key areas (Construction, Retail, Manufacturing, Organics, Business Growth, Behavioural Change, and Local Authority Support), WRAP’s work focuses on market development and support to drive forward recycling and materials resource efficiency within these sectors, as well as wider communications and awareness activities including the multi-media national Recycle Now campaign for England.

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