Plastic Bags Are Good for You

What prohibitionists get wrong about one of modernity's greatest inventions


Here is a list of things that are thicker than a typical plastic grocery bag: A strand of hair. A coat of paint. A human cornea.

High-density polyethylene is a miracle of materials science. Despite weighing less than 5 grams, one bag can hold 17 pounds, well over 1,000 times its own weight. At about a penny apiece, the bags are cheap enough for stores to give away and sturdy enough to carry home two gallons of milk in the evening and still be up to the task of scooping Cujo's poop the next morning.

Yet almost as soon as grocers started offering their customers the choice of "paper or plastic?" these modern marvels became a whipping boy for environmentalists, politicians, and other well-intentioned, ill-informed busybodies. Plastic bags for retail purchases are banned or taxed in more than 200 municipalities and a dozen countries, from San Francisco to South Africa, Bellingham to Bangladesh. Each region serves up its own custom blend of alarmist rhetoric; coastal areas blame the wispy totes for everything from asphyxiated sea turtles to melting glaciers, while inland banners decry the bags' role in urban landscape pollution and thoughtless consumerism.

But a closer look at the facts and figures reveals shaky science and the uncritical repetition of improbable statistics tossed about to shore up the case for a mostly aesthetic, symbolic act of conservation.

How did one of the most efficient, resource-saving inventions of the 20th century become an environmentalist bugaboo?


Before 1800, if you bought or traded for an object, you were pretty much on your own to get it home. People carried baskets for the little stuff and wheeled carts for the bigger items, often toting scraps of canvas or other durable fabric to wrap messier or more fragile goods, such as meat or pastries. This was back when the germ theory of disease was yet to be broadly accepted, and there were not yet Laundromats on every street corner.

In the early 19th century, paper became cheap enough that merchants started using it to package their wares, tying off the bundles with string—a huge leap for both convenience and sanitation. The paper bag was invented in the 1850s, but it wasn't until the 1870s that a factory girl named Margaret Knight cobbled together a machine that cut, folded, and glued flat-bottomed paper receptacles. While the brown paper bag seems like the height of humdrum to modern eyes, Knight's machine was kind of a big deal: She won a bitter intellectual property fight to receive one of the first patents ever awarded to a woman, and was eventually decorated by Queen Victoria for her efforts. Over time, the paper bag got cheaper and stronger and sprouted handles, but it remained essentially unchanged, comfortably dominating the stuff-schlepping market for the next 100 years.

Meanwhile, German chemist Hans von Pechmann was messing around with methane and ether in a lab in 1898 when he happened to notice a waxy precipitate called polymethylene. Unfortunately, no one could puzzle out what to do with the goo, so another 30 years would pass before DuPont chemists stumbled upon a similar compound, polyethylene. This time, the British figured out they could use it to insulate radar cables, which is where the substance served its war duty. In 1953, Karl Ziegler of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (later re-christened the Max Planck Institute, for obvious reasons) and Erhard Holzkamp invented high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and soon after figured out how to use it to make pipes. Ziegler even snagged a Nobel Prize for the invention in 1963.

But Gustaf Thulin Sten is the real hero (or villain, depending on your point of view) of our tale. An employee of the Swedish company Celloplast, Sten was the person who had the inspiration to punch holes into the side of super-thin tubes of HDPE, thus creating the ubiquitous, filmy "T-shirt bags" we know and love (to ban) today.

In a 1993 book that claims to reveal the "hidden life of groceries and other secrets of the supermarket," journalist Vince Staten pinpoints the moment that the global takeover of the plastic bag became inevitable: a 1985 gathering of the New Materials and Profits in Grocery Sacks and Coextrusions Conference at a Holiday Inn in Somerset, New Jersey, at which a representative from Chem Systems announced that plastic bags were 11.5 percent cheaper than paper. Just like that, the world changed. Plastic bags were stocked in 10 percent of grocery stores in 1983, according to Plastics World magazine. By 1985 it was 75 percent. "Paper or plastic?" immediately became an everyday question, a punchline, and a source of angst.

Almost from the beginning, plastic bags were controversial. After several high-profile suffocation deaths of children, manufacturers worked together to create a public safety campaign, staving off regulation and reducing accidents. As grocers substituted plastic for paper to bolster their bottom lines, suburban shoppers, who preferred to line up flat-bottomed paper bags in the backs of their cars, complained, even as urban shoppers rejoiced at the ability to comfortably and reliably carry more than two bags at a time.

The booming environmental movement was initially flummoxed. Forest conservation was a big deal in the '80s, a point in favor of plastic. But fossil fuels were a no-no, so maybe paper was better? Both types of bags at the time were tough to recycle. The debate raged on, leaving eco-conscious shoppers unclear about the best course of action.


In 2010, Guinness World Records named plastic bags the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world. But peak bag may already be upon us.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to prohibit plastic bags, citing concerns about water pollution and waste disposal. Chicago, Austin, Portland, and nearly all of Hawaii soon followed suit, chiming in with complaints about wastefulness, climate change, and more. Chinese officials banned plastic bags two months before hosting the 2008 Olympics, for the same reason they banned high-emissions vehicles and daytime pajama-wearing-such unsightly displays didn't match up with the image the People's Republic wanted to present to the world. In China, they call the floating sacks "white pollution." South Africans refer to bags snagged in bushes as their "national flower."

In Washington, D.C., concern about used plastic bags finding their way down storm drains, through the Anacostia River, and into the Chesapeake Bay was the primary justification for the capital city's 5-cent bag tax in 2010, under the slogan "Skip the Bag, Save the River." In 2006, the California Coastal Commission claimed that plastic bags make up 3.8 percent of beach litter, and a few years later the California Ocean Protection Council upped the ante to 8 percent of all coastal trash. Last year the Dallas City Council pinned 5 percent of the area's refuse on bags.

But the definitive American litter study—yep, such a thing exists—reports much lower figures. The 2009 Keep America Beautiful Survey, run by Steven Stein of Environmental Resources Planning, shows that all plastic bags, of which plastic retail bags are only a subset, are just 0.6 percent of visible litter nationwide. And those California data? They come from the International Coastal Commission (ICC), which the California Coastal Commission notes relies on information "collected by volunteers on one day each year, and is not a scientific assessment." (This insight, and many others in this story, is derived from a study produced last year by Julian Morris and Brian Seasholes for Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes reason.) In D.C., a 2008 analysis prepared for the city's Department of the Environment by the Anacostia Watershed Society found that plastic bags were only the third-largest contributor to litter in the river, after food wrappers and bottles and cans.

Stein's study did find plastic bags in storm drains, but again, they made up only about 1 percent of the total litter.

Some plastic bags do find their way into the sea, of course. And one of the other concerns cited for the banning and regulation of plastic grocery bags is the safety of marine wildlife. The Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation is just one organization among many that claim that more than 1 million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from eating or getting entangled in plastic.

Morris and Seasholes reconstructed an elaborate game of statistical telephone to source this figure back to a study funded by the Canadian government that tracked loss of marine animals in Newfoundland as a result of incidental catch and entanglement in fishing gear from 1981 to 1984. Importantly, this three-decade-old study had nothing to do with plastic bags at all.

Porpoises and sea turtles are undeniably charismatic megafauna—the pandas of the deep—and it's understandable that environmental groups would want to parade them around in a bid to drum up sympathy, almost certainly driven by the sincere belief that plastics put the beloved animals at grave risk. But in the end, there's little evidence that that's true. As David Santillo, a senior biologist with Greenpeace, told The Times of London, "It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags. With larger mammals it's fishing gear that's the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren't an issue."


But what about larger-scale impacts, such as climate change? Where do grocery bags stack up there? A 2011 study from the U.K.'s Environmental Agency attempted to quantify the emissions footprint both of plastic bags and of their substitutes. Holding the typical HDPE grocery bag up as the standard, researchers found that the common reusable non-woven polypropylene bag—the ubiquitous crinkly plastic tote, typically made with oil—had to be used at least 11 times to hold its own against an HDPE grocery bag. Cotton bags had to be used an amazing 131 times to do the same.

In 2007, for a brief moment, the "It bag" wasn't a $30,000 Hermes Birkin, it was a cotton tote designed by Anya Hindmarch that read: "I'm NOT A Plastic bag." Celebrities from Ivanka Trump to Keira Knightly were snapped toting the sold-out satchels for glossies like Life&Style and Grazia. While we can never know for sure, it seems wildly unlikely that Ivanka Trump has carried 131 loads of groceries in her life, much less in that particular bag.

What's more, those U.K. Environmental Agency figures assume the HDPE bag is not being reused. Nor do they account for the energy and materials needed to regularly wash the reusable bags in hot soapy water. Other alternatives did perform somewhat better in the global-warming matchup, including paper bags (which would have to be reused three times to match the single-use HDPE bag's footprint) and another type of reusable bag made of low-density polyethylene (four times).

About 65 percent of Americans report that they repurpose their grocery bags for garbage. By contrast, a survey by the marketing research firm Edelman Berland found that consumers reported forgetting their reusable bags on 40 percent of grocery trips and opted for plastic or paper instead. Prior to the movement to ban plastic bags, many American homes had a nook, cranny, or drawer that functioned as a kind of grocery-sack clown car. It seemed that whatever the size of the container, an infinite number of bags could be stuffed inside. My family called it the bag o' bags. As in: "Katherine! This mold experiment has gone on long enough! Go get me a bag from the bag o' bags so that I can throw it away," or "Karina, you better remember to get a bag from the bag o' bags for that wet swimsuit, unless you want the books in your backpack to get wet." If we wound up with an unmanageable surplus, we could just drop the bags at the recycling centers that used to sit in the parking lots of most suburban grocery stores.

Then there are the frequently unmeasured consumption consequences of the bans themselves. For example, in San Francisco, after the grocery/retail plastic bag ban went into effect in 2007, depriving customers of a source of free bags, sales of still legal, low-density polyethylene plastic bags shot up 400 percent.


"It takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce the 100 billion plastic bags that are thrown away in the U.S. every year." Versions of this claim show up everywhere from New York Times editorials to Save the Bay pamphlets. But the origins of the figures are murky and the dramatic tone is misleading. Even if the number is accurate, it is almost a literal drop in the bucket: Americans consume a total of about 19 million barrels of oil a day. But as Morris and Seasholes point out, all that fretting about oil use "is surprising, not least because nearly all HDPE bags are produced from natural gas, not oil. Indeed, between 1981 and 2012, on average only 3.2% of polyethylene bags were made from oil. The reason is simple: it is far less expensive to produce ethylene, the feedstock for polyethylene, from natural gas (methane) than from oil." While the price of oil has recently declined, the assumption that plastic bags are made primarily from oil remains false.

In 2010, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans threw away 690,000 tons of HDPE bags. Of those, approximately 30,000 tons were recycled. That means a total of 660,000 tons were discarded, mostly into landfills (approximately 82 percent of non-recovered municipal solid waste goes to landfill; 18 percent is incinerated). That same year, Americans also chucked almost exactly the same amount of "reusable" polypropylene bags (680,000 tons), of which zero were recovered. In other words, those polypropylene reusable bags actually constituted a slightly higher proportion of all bags going to landfills.

In April, NPR's Planet Money reported on the economics of plastic recycling, and noted that while recycled plastic from bags and sacks was once a profitable industry, times have changed. The prices of oil and gas have fallen, which means it is cheaper to just make new bags rather than undertake the laborious process of recycling the old ones. As Tom Outerbridge, who runs a Brooklyn recycling center called Sims, explained, "We can't afford to put a lot of time and money into trying to recycle it" if no one's buying the final product.


In March, The Washington Post reported on the surprising strength of the plastic bag industry in the face of regulatory onslaught.

In 2008, officials in the deep blue city of Seattle voted to impose a 20-cent fee on both plastic and paper single- use bags. "There's a competitive side to seeing who can come up with the most progressive legislation," city councilman and former local Sierra Club leader Mike O'Brien told The New York Times. But industry rallied before the implementation date, spending $1.4 million on a citywide ballot measure to repeal the fee. The referendum campaign was a success; Seattle voters rejected the surcharge, which would have been the most punitive in the nation, in 2009. Still, three years later, Seattle became the fourth city in Washington State to approve an outright plastic- bag ban, along with a 5-cent fee on paper bags.

In Dallas, a coalition of plastic bag manufacturers are challenging a 5-cent markup that the city has imposed on single-use bags. Hilex Poly (now Novolex), Superbag Operating, the Inteplast Group, and Advance Polybag argue that the fee is illegal under an obscure Dallas law that states: "A local government or other political subdivision may not adopt an ordinance, rule or regulation to: prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law; [or] assess a fee or deposit on the sale or use of a container or package."

In Georgia, the state Senate got a little meta, passing a ban on bag bans last session, which would have pre-emptively prevented restrictions. While the bill failed in the House, it may prove to be a model for other state pre-emptions around the country.

Ground Zero of the plastic wars, unsurprisingly, is California. Last year, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed a statewide ban against plastic grocery bags that was scheduled to take effect this July 1. But the implementation has been stalled, thanks to 800,000 signatories to a petition circulated by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a new group funded by plastics manufacturers. Voters will now have to ratify the ban on their 2016 ballots for it to go into effect. "This is a cynical ploy by out-of-state interests desperate to delay a ban already adopted in more than 100 communities across California," a spokesperson for Brown told the Associated Press.

Of course, if there's some banning going on, you can always rely on Congress to muscle in on the action. Rep. James P. Moran (D–Va.) has repeatedly introduced a bill to create a national 5-cent tax on all disposable plastic or paper bags supplied by stores to customers. The bill typically dies quietly in committee, but perhaps Moran was hoping that, as Gandhi famously didn't say: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win."


As I write this, a load of reusable grocery bags is tumbling around in my dryer. In the course of researching this article, I got so thoroughly grossed out by the malevolent horror lurking in my pantry that I had to stop writing and start washing.

I may love plastic bags, but I'm not immune to cultural and economic pressure, so when I remember to, I tote my reusable bags to the store like a good little yuppie. But this ostensibly modern act brings me back to conditions a little too reminiscent of the sub-hygienic reality faced by my great-great-grandmother, with her blood-and-crumb-covered reusable canvas wrapper.

If you're like most people, here's what you have probably done at least once: Put a leaky package of chicken in your cloth or plastic tote. Then go home, empty the bag, crumple it up, and toss it in the trunk of your car to fester. A week later, you go shopping again and throw some veggies you're planning to eat raw into the same bag. Cue diarrhea.

A 2011 survey published in the journal Food Protection Trends found coliform bacteria in fully half of the reusable shopping bags tested in a random survey of shoppers in Arizona and California. The same 2014 Edelman Berland study that found consumers frequently forgot their bags also unearthed the fact that only 18 percent of shoppers reported cleaning their bags "once a week or more." An article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases traced a 2010 outbreak of norovirus to nine members of an Oregon soccer team who had touched or eaten food stored in a contaminated reusable bag.

Your cute reusable tote decorated with whimsical watercolors of eggplants may actually be causing those stomach cramps.


Set your mind back to 1999, before our current wave of bag crackdowns, but well after the "plastic" answer to "paper or plastic?" began giving environmentalists the tremors. In that year's Oscar-winning American Beauty, an ambitious young filmmaker within the dull confines of suburbia captures an iconic image of a plastic sack—that product of banal late-capitalist excess—twirling artistically in the wind. "And this bag was just dancing with me," he says dreamily. "Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For 15 minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever."

Though it was meant as irony, there was an essential (if accidental) truth behind the speech. The technology behind plastic grocery bags is so useful it won a Nobel Prize. Employing an unimaginably small amount of base material, manufacturers can create tools of surprising strength and durability. Far from being the environmental threat activists make them out to be, plastic bags are not particularly to blame for clogged sewers, choked rivers, asphyxiated sea animals, or global warming. Instead, they are likely our best bet for carrying all of our junk in a responsible manner.

Don't believe the haters. Plastic bags are good for you.

NEXT: These Teens Kept Their Sexting Private, But Cops Found Out. Now They Face Sex Offender Registry, Jail.

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  1. Guess who else recycles bags.

    1. Bag ladies?

  2. The solution to plastic bags? Tax paper bags!

    Seriously. Throughout my state (California), ever plastic bag ban has been accompanied by a tax on paper bags. It makes no sense. How is a tax on paper even remotely related to plastic? Only the fever addled mind of a do-gooder could ever come up with it.

    1. So you want just as many paper trees cut down as plastic ones.

      1. Trees are a renewable resource. Hey, you got a great idea though. We find those Christmas tree farms where they grow all those artificial Christmas trees, and make artificial bags from them.

        Problem solved.

        1. "Trees are a renewable resource."

          The term "renewable resource" is meaningless. It's a cute slogan, though, designed to sway low information idiots.

      2. trees are not harvested to make paper, except when they are planted as a crop specifically for the purpose of making paper. In that case, cutting the trees down is no different than harvesting corn or wheat. It is an agricultural crop, planted and cultivated in rows, and harvested specifically for pulp. The "save a tree" mantra reveals the profound ignorance of those who rattle it off as if they know something.

        Waste paper, cardboard, wood chips and scraps, also contribute significantly to the making of paper, particularly the brown kraft produced for the manufacture of grocery bags.

    2. Do you know how many trees they had to cut down to make this plastic, er, paper bag!!

    3. All you had to say was "California".

    4. They have to make up the lost taxes from decreased plastic bag sales somewhere...

    5. They've done that in Maryland and DC, as well.

      Ostensibly, the revenue raised by the DC bag tax is to be used to clean up the Anacostia River or some other such environmental nonsense that they will never follow up on.

      In the tradition of our great founders, as a patriotic protest against this tax, I plan to steal thousands of bags and dump them into the Anacostia River.

  3. Thank you Katherine. Great article that needs broader exposure!

  4. Morris and Seasholes point out, all that fretting about oil use "is surprising, not least because nearly all HDPE bags are produced from natural gas, not oil. Indeed, between 1981 and 2012, on average only 3.2% of polyethylene bags were made from oil. The reason is simple: it is far less expensive to produce ethylene, the feedstock for polyethylene, from natural gas (methane) than from oil.

    This is factually incorrect. First, the feedstock for ethylene can be ethane, propane, butane, naphtha, or diesel-gravity gas oil. Methane is not an ethylene feedstock at any commercial ethylene plant on the planet. Second, ethane or a mix of ethane and propane is generally the preferred feedstock in North America and the Middle East, but a significant fraction of North American capacity uses liquid feedstock derived from crude oil. Ethylene plants in Europe and Asia overwhelmingly use liquid feedstock. The 3.2% figure is just wrong regardless of whether your basis is US-only or worldwide. Well over one-third of the feedstock to US ethylene plants is a liquid feedstock refined from crude oil. Once ethylene is produced it is a pure commodity: there is no distinction between ethylene product derived from natural gas (ethane) and that derived from crude oil.

    1. But one part is absolutely correct: the fretting is ridiculous. Plastic bags lock up hydrocarbons that would otherwise be combusted to yield CO2 emissions in polymer chain whose weight is comprised overwhelmingly of carbon. After re-purposing as a trash liner or pooper scooper, the plastic bag will be landfilled and, due to the highly stable molecular structure of polyethylene, the carbon will be forever sequestered. If they had a lick of sense, environmentalists would love plastic bags.

      1. Isn't there some microbe in the ocean that's eating this type of plastic now? I was hearing about how it's been making oilspill get cleaned up faster and eating the 'garbage patch'.

        1. I know that microbes eat oil, but I don't think they eat HDPE. HDPE is subject to UV degradation, but if landfilled that's not a problem.

        2. Isn't there some microbe in the ocean that's eating this type of plastic now? I was hearing about how it's been making oilspill get cleaned up faster and eating the 'garbage patch'.

          Not to trump Cato, but there is and it's largely irrelevant. If it were chewing up all carbon chains everywhere, we'd have a lot harder time with oil shale and underground reserves. Even paper is pretty easy to 'preserve' in your average landfill. As it is, as long as you don't try and sequester carbon in what is effectively a bioreactor, the plastic is more ubiquitously useful while being a better/more stable sequestering agent than most anything considered to be 'green'.

    2. Your premise is off regarding mention of methane. It was only in reference to an early discovery that eventually led to using ethylene products.

      I suggest you go back and re-read what the author says. The rest of your argument seems to misconstrue, at least to me, what the author actually says versus what you infer.

      Your facts are straight about "ethylene", but that isn't the gist of the article.

    3. This is factually incorrect. First, the feedstock for ethylene can be ethane, propane, butane, naphtha, or diesel-gravity gas oil. Methane is not an ethylene feedstock at any commercial ethylene plant on the planet.

      No it isn't. The ethylene feedstocks are by-products of purifying raw natural gas.

      1. The un-bolded portion it is what should be bolded.

        1. emboldened?

      2. SIV: I've worked in the ethylene industry for thirty years. I've visited just about every major company that makes ethylene. Many of them make ethylene by cracking naphtha and heavier liquid hydrocarbons that are derived from crude oil. Except for a few ethylene plants located in the North Sea, Middle East, and Gulf of Siam, pretty much every cracker in Europe and Asia makes ethylene by cracking naphtha or gas oil.

  5. I keep a Chico bag in my glove compartment, a reusable plastic bag which stuffs into itself and closes with a drawstring. If I remember to stick it in my pocket, I prefer to use it because it is washable and goes in the laundry bin after unpacking, and the grocery stores generally give me a 5 cent credit for each bag I bring. I don't figure it actually costs me anything to wash, since it goes in the laundry with everything else. And while the Chico web site lists them at around $5 each, for a while the grocery stores were selling them two for 99 cents.

    Wouldn't pay $5 each. Prefer plastic one-use bags. But I do generate less garbage this way, so what the hey ...

  6. we got our bag ban overturned in Dallas. Councilretard Dwayne Caraway was pissed. he was going on about how much it costs to send out a truck to pull a bag out of a tree. Excuse me retard? the city can't even fix a pothole and you're sending ladder trucks to pull plastic bags out of trees? oh, you're just lying. well fuck on then.

    1. There's no reason to remove plastic bags from trees. They deteriorate very quickly in sunlight. Pretty soon the bag will crumble into small pieces which will blow away in the wind.

      1. Must disagree! Plastic bags in trees, shrubbery, fences, ditches, etc., are unsightly for much longer than you suggest. It is wild to suggest that somehow all plastic bags will end up in trees and will be degraded by sunlight. In shady places they can last at least a year. Underwater in rivers and streams the accumulate on debris such as limbs, and on grates and they seem to accumulate in great numbers and stay for a long time. Improperly discarded plastic bags are unsightly, truly a pox on the landscape. I am not a bag hater except for their trashy appearance most everywhere.

    2. That's great! I didn't know about that. I live in Garland (a suburb of Dallas) and I was avoiding buying stuff in Dallas since doing so meant I had to carry a bunch of loose items in my arms.

      Now, how about getting the law that they passed to steal money from me and my fellow Uber drivers overturned too?

  7. Dallas, Texas has already removed the tax on plastic bags. The citizenry protested, and the council members folded. It never an environmental issue. It was a revenue issue.

  8. So you're telling me it doesn't matter which trash can I use for plastic bags?

    1. Most recycling systems cannot use plastic bags-they're too strong.
      But the paper ones go in the Blue bin.

  9. Thanks for the insightful and factual article. I'm sad I already know that it will be ignored by everybody.

  10. Plastic bags turn to dust in practically no time. The sun does the work and no long term harm done than a brief eyesore.

    More hoopla heaped on stupid sheep.

    Next, please do a hit piece on the futility of mass recycling. Aluminum and maybe some glass recycling are the only forms that are possibly net positive energy savers and resource savers.

    The cleaning processes are water users on mass scale and the energy that goes into these processes is likely far more exorbitant then just buying new products.
    The bottom line is that wasting resources on the global warming boogey man will continue to be exposed as a farce.
    If we start to boil alive or run out of oil, then I would rather take my chances with the innovators at that time than rely on some dipshit politician.

    1. Penn & Teller's Bullshit had a fantastic episode on recycling.

      Here is the best part:


    2. You are the stupid one, timbo. So in a littered landscape they degrade quickly (untrue) and disappear and are steadily being
      replaced by more plastic bags. The landscape has a continuous littered appearance, agree? You shouldn't be reading Reason!

  11. As grocers substituted plastic for paper to bolster their bottom lines, suburban shoppers, who preferred to line up flat-bottomed paper bags in the backs of their cars, complained, even as urban shoppers rejoiced at the ability to comfortably and reliably carry more than two bags at a time.

    Urban elites triumph over country yokels. I never see paper bags outside of Department and liquor stores.

  12. As I write this, a load of reusable grocery bags is tumbling around in my dryer

    Cowardly Katherine caves,tsk tsk.

  13. Plastic's problem started when grocers began using a fresh bag for every 2-3 items and shoppers felt guilty dragging home 20-30 bags.

  14. This is a must read article for the undecided. And thanks for adding "grocery-sack clown car" to my list of amusing phrases!

  15. Great article that really needs wider exposure than just Reason readers. Make a Youtube video of this - that'll get the progs' blood boiling in the YT comments!

    I, myself reuse plastic sacks as trash liners, and occasionally for other things.

  16. I use plastic bags for cat shit, malodorous foods and to line the bathroom trashcan.

    1. Me too,the greatest invention ever.

  17. A bit longer this article.

    1. A bit 'hellower' to you!

  18. Is it bad whenever I see people carry those $6 new-age bags into stores I think they're chumps and that I'm a winner for paying the nickel for a plastic bag?

    I love going to ethnic grocery stores. Seems the anti-plastic hysteria hasn't hit them yet. They practically bag one item per bag.

    1. that's cause all those extra bags are handy at home, and they USE them for lots of things. Nothing like free tools, eh?

  19. Great article! I despise plastic bags (why yes, I am a suburbanite) partly because everyone in my family saves them - and they build up faster than they get used. I agree with the ghastly one that "grocery-sack clown car" might be the greatest phrase ever.

    As with most things I despise - I don't want to see them banned.

  20. K M-W, there's a whole chapter you should could add to the discussion is the entire energy balance of the paper bag side of things!
    The plastic bags versus paper bags per truckload (by weight and quantity per truck) as well as energy consumption per bag shipped by truck, and so on.

    I picture that a given tractor-trailer (long after each kind of bag has been created) can carry LOTS MORE plastic bags per load compared to paper... and that kind of comparison might do well to tip the 'green-ness scale' towards plastic and away from paper.

    And btw, one of my fun things is, when the checkout person asks 'paper or plastic,' I take out a credit card and some cash and ask the same thing: "Paper or Plastic?" 🙂 Sometimes they laugh.

  21. If there is human progress being made, somewhere there is a progressive angry about it.

    1. And ready to make up lies about how it hurts the mud-momma...

    2. I love calling Progressives Luddites. Gets their blood boiling because deep down they know it is true.

  22. The paper ones rip before I can get them home, and I never have reusable ones with me when I am at a store. I just but new reusable ones and then throw them away when I get home. I must be a terrible person.

    1. Yes, you are -- but at least you realize it.

    2. I hope you're recycling the paper ones.

  23. The many uses & easily deposed are the height of efficancy-save a tree.

    1. "save a tree."
      From what?
      I think it was David Friedman who pointed out that if you want trees, find a way to make people buy parts of them, like if you wanted cows.
      Using paper means paper companies grow more trees, not less.

    2. no paper in the US is made from trees harvested to make peper.. UNLESS those trees have been planted like a crop specifically FOR making paper. That is one of the Sierra Club-You-On_the-Head mantras with no basis in reality. Whenver you hear that meme, know that the one uttering it is merely demonstrating his ignorance in the matter.... and is likely equally ignorant on most things "ecological"./

  24. I participate in distributing free food to the presumably hungry, many of whom seem to be quite poor and some, homeless. We and they rely on recycled plastic supermarket bags to hold the food items we give them. The assumption that everyone can afford a nice cloth or woven bag for $1 or whatever is an illusion. Although we did get a lot of cloth bags from a politician once, with his advertising on them. Unfortunately the bags fell apart about as quickly as his campaign.

    I am not sure about the bags sequestering carbon for very long -- bacteria are ingenious, and are always looking for things to eat. I think they're already getting after plastic in the wild.

  25. I mostly agree: plastic bags are the shiznit. My one quibble, though, is where you use the mass of plastic bags found in sewers to argue that said bags do not plug drains and pipes. Comparing mass for beach pollution is fine, but for pipes, grates, etc., you are dealing with water pressure on a flat, malleable, water tight surface. One 5 gram plastic bag, strategically placed over a 3" inch drain pipe, or a common curb storm drain, can cause an extreme amount of havoc.
    I agree plastic bags are great, but they do pose a unique environmental problem.

    1. The only way I see plastic bags being a real problem for storm drains is if they somehow accumulate together. Otherwise, other debris would tear them. The bags have tremendous strength to weight ratio, but their upper limit isn't very high compared to the forces they would come into contact with in a storm situation.

      1. No. I'm not talking theory, I'm relaying actual scenarios that I have dealt with. A bag stretched over a storm drain, with an inch of muck on top of it, can cause streets to flood from minor amounts of rain. A plastic bag wrapped around a pile of leaves, dirt, and twigs might have holes in it, but believe me, any drain pipe it gets washed down is not "draining" anything.
        The good bags are really very strong, and even the cheap ones from the dollar store can cause localized problems. That said, I'm not sold on their danger to the global ecology.

        1. First of all, storm drains aren't 3" in diameter. And even if they were, leaves and other degree would clog them anyway.

          Can they be a problem? Yes, in certain situations, but not to the levels that they need to be outlawed. I think we agree on this part at least.

          1. Really? Then what diameter are storm drains? I'd love to hear your educated and experienced position on this issue. Listen, what I do for a living is keep the infrastructure of our civilization working. So, tell me, what diameter is the average storm drain?

  26. Yes, and paper bags require the logging of trees, much of which consist of parts only suitable for mulch, lots of bleach and lots of energy to transform into heavy loads (paper is heavy) that must be transported to consumers. Ditto paper cups.

    Both plastic bags and styrofoam cups use less energy, and cause less waste and polution in their manufacture and delivery. They take up less room in a landfill. Natural gas is natural, isn't it?

  27. A few more things I have observed about the plastic "tee shirt bags": whenever I would use one to keep a few items clustered together and put the whole lot outside in the weather for some time (I live near that wretched "deep blue" city of Seattle) if it stays exposed to air and sunlight for more than through the winter, the plastic itself gets brittle, breaking down and crumbling to powder well within a year. I've also observed some floating out in the Sound, exposed to light and air, and also crumbling. The bag itself no longer exists after about a year exposed to the elements.

    Further, my reusing them as wastebin liners precludes my paying much more for a far heavier liner bag manufactured specifically for that puropse. Those are most often made of polypropylene plastic, and far thicker. When I use that type fo bag to group itsme for outside storage, those bags last several years. I wonder has anyone researched the quantity of such bags sold yearly, and compared that to the peak use of the Tee Shirt bags? I'll wager the purpose made liner bags outweigh the Tee Shirt Bags by several times in the rubbish tips. And those nasty things keep the waste well sealed up, so it does not break down naturally as it would if not sealed in tough plastic.

    1. I also keep a handful of them in my car, and use them for all manner of things, including holding my shopping. But as soon as the slightest hint of soiling presents, they are either relegated to "dirtywork" or are finaly disposed of. This generally comes after an average of half a dozen "terms of service".

      My own county passed a bag ban and mandatory "tax" on the single use paper bags. The county get the tax, it does NOT pay for the paper bag. I will stop by some display in the store and pick up a pasteboard carton from some product and use that as my "tote" to get my purchases out to the car or my bike. The "greenies" are carefully crafting a painful and obnoxious existence for the rest of us. The tide will turn one day, and they will suffer consequences for their ill considered nannyism. For that \is surely what is at the root of this nonsense.

      1. Did you know that one can make paper from the material that usually comes out of a wood chipper?

  28. I definitely like the plastic bags more than the paper ones!

  29. Fortunately, I don't live in a place with a plastic bag ban (at least not yet). But if it ever does happen, I'm going to order myself a roll of HPDE bags from Amazon and take that to the grocery store with me. I'm smiling already just imagining all the tsking and stink-eyes I'd get.

  30. Not to be a stickler, but polymethylene is not a real compound, that structure would be analogous to polyethylene, Hans von Pechmann actually discovered polyethylene in his work.

  31. 1% of litter? I have to say, that little stat surprises me. I don't know how much Katherine gets around, (on the ground, that is), but I'm a truck driver, and these plastic bags seem to be flying around everywhere. They seem to be the most common, identifiable, type of litter I see. They may not be "clogging" our rivers, but if you take a walk next to almost any river, you're gonna see a lot of these things stuck on branches and roots. Then there are the "bagnadoes" I see twirling above garbage dumps, and yes, on the Interstate.
    But, let's grant the points in the article. It still seems to me that using a renewable and biodegradable material is smarter than not. There are other, better, uses for ethane.

    1. I think that's probably a case of the bags seeming to be more present because they move and because they are white and easy to see. When I walk my dog, the type of litter I see most often are drink containers - cans, glass bottles, plastic water bottles, etc. They're often not as noticeable when driving as white plastic bags.

      1. No. Again, it's not the mass of the bag, it's the shape. A very small amount of mass, properly bonded, stretched out with a framework behind it (grate for instance), with a steady pressure (water) applied to the front, is going to clog your drain. I have seen it so many times I can't even count.

        1. Oops, I re-answered what I already did, above thread. But the same thing holds true: the bags may not have much mass, but that mass has been made into a very wide, very thin, very strong shape. That's why they clog drains, and its why they fly like kites. It's why they seem so ubiquitous, not because they make up a large part of the mass, but because they take up a large area.

        2. And again, if it's a grate, leaves and other debris are going to clog it anyway. The bag might help the process, but anything that small simply isn't designed for any kind of debris to begin with.

  32. Gotta love fear mongering and all the 'solutions' it provides.

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  34. And what about the energy? It cost more to ship paper bags because they weigh more. It cost more to ship them because they take up a lot more room. More space has to be set aside for the bulkier paper bags. It takes a lot more energy to make paper bags. Why are environmentalists trying to destroy our planet by outlawing paper bags?

    1. oops - I meant "outlawing plastic bags"

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  36. Anyone ever carried groceries home in a paper bag in the rain? Not for long. I don't know about anyone else but we have a cupboard full of every plastic bag we've ever received that wasn't already reused for a garbage bag or other purpose. When we get stuck with paper bags we throw them away because they weren't any good in the first place. Bag laws are just another fascist excuse to tax and control.

  37. really hard to commit suicide with a paper bag too...just saying

  38. Excellent Article.

    Please visit my website: http://fighttheplasticbagban.com to learn more about why bag bans are not good public policy and not a good solution to solve the plastic bag litter problem or prevent harm to wildlife.

    Advocates for bag bans never answer fundamental questions about the problem with plastic bags. such as:

    1) How many plastic bags are used in my community? Of those how many or what percent are littered?
    2) What percent of plastic bags are reused as trash bags?
    3) How did plastic bags found as roadside litter get there? From trucks with uncovered loads? People littering?
    4) Where did the plastic bags in local creeks/rivers come from? Did they originate from storm drain outfalls, homeless encampments, or recreational use of creeks and nearby public parks?
    5) What are trash excluders or trash traps in storm drains ? and how will installation of these under the Federal Clean Water Act prevent plastic bags from entering creeks and rivers from storm drains?
    6) Do plastic bag bans really solve the litter problem?

    The answer is that plastic bag bans do not solve the litter problem nor do they prevent harm to wildlife from plastic that is in the environment.

    For more, just read the articles on my website. There is simply no valid justification for a bag ban. By using either paper bags or making that flimsy plastic bag a bit thicker so it would not become windblown litter is really all that is required.

  39. Excellent! Now I have some facts to counter the smug-yet-anecdotal chastisement from pseudo-progressive neighbors. Thanks!

  40. "...these modern marvels became a whipping boy for environmentalists, politicians, and other well-intentioned, ill-informed busybodies." - Katherine Mangu-Ward

    None of these people are well-intentioned or ill-informed. They are hateful commie bastards who know exactly what they are doing is nonsense and only designed to cause harm. It is only their dumbass tools who are ill-informed. (That would be low-information voters, i.e. democrats.)

  41. "...plastic bags are not particularly to blame for clogged sewers, choked rivers, asphyxiated sea animals, or global warming." - Katherine Mangu-Ward

    Of course plastic bags aren't responsible for those things, because other than clogged sewers none of the other things are real. (There are no choked rivers in the USA.)

  42. The question about how good or bad plastic bags are for the environment isn't as clear asenvironmentalists will have you believe. It really depends upon whether a plastic bag is reused the second time (such as a liner for a garbage can) or whether it's used once and thrown away without being recycled (the worst possible outcome for the environment).

    Even if plastic bags are bad for the environment, there are still good reasons for using them and absolutely no reason why they can't be part of a mandatory municipal recycling program which would eliminate much of their negative environmental impact.

  43. Excellent! Now I have some facts to counter the smug-yet-anecdotal chastisement from pseudo-progressive neighbors.


  44. It takes 13 times before a reusable bag has paid for itself?

    I don't think we've bought a new reusable bag this year, so even if we only went shopping once a week we'd be in the black by March. And since we go shopping quite a bit more often then that (small pantry), and I think we didn't but a new bag last year either...

    So yeah. Even aside from the environmental/aesthic/litter arguments, reusable bags seem like a boon.

    Or, to put it another way... just what are you people *doing* to your bags that you aren't using them at least 13 times?

  45. I think of disposable plastic bags as a great way of carbon sequestration; AGW activists should love it.

    I'm wondering: can't you buy large number of disposable plastic shopping bags, keep them in the car, and take them with you to the store?

    1. Of course. I purchase 'em in boxes of 2,000 from a local Wholesale Club (the wholesale arm of the Real Canadian Superstore). Cheap, strong, and surprisingly reusable ? unless it's for picking up the dog poop. 😉

      1. "...and surprisingly reusable". This article makes a ton of references to people reusing their disposable plastic bags. I am one of them. But in reality I reuse only a small portion of them, and generally those I reuse are only reused once. The remaining bags go to the recycling center.

        While I applaud those who do responsibly reuse and recycle, ultimately by continuing this attitude of single use (or 2 or 3 use) plastic products we are putting more and more non-degradable plastics into landfills.

        In a perfect world where each person reused every bag and recycled every bag we would be far better off, but the reality is that most people just throw them away. By banning single use bags you force the consumer, over time, to adopt a mindset of reuse while reducing the production of non-degradable products.

  46. I'm still a bit OCD.. always was, though it's fading a little in my Old Age...
    I put all of the plastic bags we bring home with groceries Or Anything Else, including our daily delivered newspapers that get bagged in rainy weather... sometimes double-bagged... and collect them in a [paper] sack in our pantry.

    When the sack is full, I empty it into a small garbage can with a plastic liner and cram 'em in until the container won't hold any more... Then I remove the 'bag of bags' and take it to the grocery store where there's a plastic-bag-recycling bin!

    I use a similar small-can liner for out kitchen waste, which goes happily to the dump every week or two (we don't create even enough 'trash' for a weekly curbside pickup. And the bag that lines our recycling bin in the kitchen gets emptied into our city-provided recycling bin... and then the empty plastic bag from That goes into the plastic-bag-recycling bin next to it!

    There used to be lots of crap about six-pack soda can holders trapping wild animals and causing grotesque deformities and suffering. I used to cut 'em up so there were no closed areas an animal could get trapped in.

    Then I realized that pretty much any 'soft plastic' can go into the plastic-bag recycling, so now I just pop 'em into that container!

    Greenies do not like data, information or math. Or rational thinking.
    I'm disappointed with that cult.

  47. "For example, in San Francisco, after the grocery/retail plastic bag ban went into effect in 2007, depriving customers of a source of free bags, sales of still legal, low-density polyethylene plastic bags shot up 400 percent."
    Gosh 400% increase that's scary! (sarcasm)
    What a misleading presentation of statistics. A 400% increase sounds like a lot, but what if the original sales figures of legal bags were insignificant compared to the grocery/retail bags? I don't know many people who buy those bags compared to those who use free ones at checkout. 400% of insignificant is still insignificant. The way the article states it tends to make the reader assume that the 400% increase in sales negates the reduced bag usage from the ban. In reality San Francisco probably had a huge decrease in bag usage from the ban, and saw only a modest increase from the uptick in purchased bags.
    Example of hypothetical small town of 10,000 people
    Pre-Ban Statistics
    # of bags given out by retailers for free: 2/person/day = 20,000 bags/day
    # bags bought by citizens: 100 people buying 3/person/day = 300 bags/day
    Total = 20,300 bags/day
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Post-Ban Statistics
    # of bags given out by retailers for free: 0 (it's banned)
    # of bags bought by citizens: 1,200 bags (400% increase from pre-ban)
    Total = 1,200 bags/day
    1,200 bags is far less than 20,300.

  48. Personally I like plastic bags - we used to resuse them for a variety of things, but mostly to pick up dog poop.

    Instead, we now use the reusable bags purchasable at grocery stores. Then to reduce the cost of washing and such we use brown paper bags as liner that not only removes the need to wash the resuse bags, but also wicks away moisture and odors. After a year or two or more, we replace the brown paper bags.

    I live in Los Angeles, so I don't have another option to actually reduce the overall waste.

    1. And before anyone asks... Yes, we now buy plastic bags to pick up the dog poop.

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