Plastic Bags: How To Reduce Their Damage To The Planet

By: Lauren Ramakrishna

Disposable plastic bags make it easy to carry stuff like groceries, takeout meals, and pretty much any kind of shopping purchase, but planet Earth is paying a high price for that convenience. It’s estimated that 4 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually, yet only 1% are returned for recycling.

What happens to the rest? They end up in landfills, where it can take them thousands of years to degrade and likely contaminating our soil and water as they do). Other plastic bags make their way into the ocean, where they hurt sea turtles, whales, and other marine animals that mistake them for food.

Eradicating disposable plastic bags completely isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. While shoppers in the U.S. use nearly one plastic shopping bag per resident per day, people in Denmark provide competitive inspiration: they use an average of just four plastic bags per year. Additionally, legislation to ban plastic bags at the state and local level is in the works across the U.S., but it will likely take years to rid the country of single-use plastic.

While single-use plastic remains a fixture in our lives, it’s vital everyone all take simple steps to lower our dependence. Check out a few ways you give plastic bags a second life and reduce their presence in your home!

Find a plastic bag recycling program.

In a dream world, you could simply toss plastic bags into the recycling bin with the cardboard boxes and glass jars, but most curbside recycling collections don’t accept them because the bags need to run through separate processing equipment. Luckily, you can drop off plastic shopping bags and other plastic wraps and films like produce bags, food storage bags, newspaper bags, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, air pillows, and casing—at designated drop-off locations.

Enter your zip code in this directory for a list of retail stores, municipal recycling centers, and private recyclers where you can drop off plastic bags. Before you drop them off, make sure they’re empty of receipts and they’re are clean and dry.

Another option? Trex, a composite decking company with a recycling program that turns shopping bags and other plastic materials into wood-alternative decks. Check out this list of their locations nation-wide.

Get crafty with plastic bags.

A trove of creative ways to repurpose them are just a computer search away! Our favorites: an outdoor pillow filled with plastic bags, a jump rope, a basket, and this coin purse. Bonus: your friends and family will be super-impressed when you tell them the useful products around your home are made from plastic bags!

Support shops that don’t do plastic.

Money talks, so spending your hard-earned cash in places that don’t use disposable plastic bags is a great way to keep them out of your home while championing the plastic-free cause. Make a list of the the locally-owned shops in your area hand out their goods in paper bags and pledge to shop there.

When you need to do a grocery run at a big chain store, consider Trader Joe’s, which recently announced huge steps to curb its single-use plastic output. Whole Foods and Aldi both encourage you to bring your own bags, and only use paper or long-term reusable plastic bags. Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s Wholesale Club eschew bags altogether—instead you pack your goods in the boxes the merchandise arrived in.