Single Use Plastics

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Single Use Plastics (English)
Plastique à Usage Unique (Français)

According to many researchers plastics now comprise one of the biggest threats to marine environments. Each year in the United States alone, over 24 billion pounds of plastic packaging is produced, which is specifically designed to be thrown away as soon as that package is opened. Plastics do not biodegrade, but instead break down into smaller and smaller particles. These plastic particles not only persist in the ocean, but they absorb the toxins from the ocean and are then eaten by fish, sea birds and other marine life. These particles are absorbed into the food web, and over 100,000 marine mammals and turtles die each year because they eat, swallow, or get tangled up in plastics. Plastic bags are considered especially dangerous to sea turtles, who mistake them for jellyfish, a main food source. Currently, 86% of all known species of sea turtles have had reported problems of entanglement or ingestion of marine debris.[1]

Single use plastic bags, such as those commonly used at the grocery store, make up a significant portion of Marine Debris and cause a very considerable amount of harm to the environment. It is estimated that about 1 trillion of these plastic bags are used each year world-wide. Over 100 billion of these petroleum-based bags are used in the United States each year and in addition to the harm caused to the marine environment, the production of these bags requires 12 million barrels of oil per year.[2] Also, municipalities spend millions of dollars attempting to clean up this trash and to recycle as much as possible; it costs California $25 million annually to landfill discarded plastic bags and public agencies in California spend more than $300 million annually in litter cleanup.[3]

Paper bags and biodegradable plastic bags arguably have less harmful impacts on the environment, but also have disadvantages. Paper bags are recycled more frequently than plastic ones[4] (less than 5% of plastic bags are recycled nationally [some estimates say it's closer to 1%], while 21% of paper bags are recycled nationally), however, they require more energy to produce and transport as well as much more energy to recycle. Additionally, increasing the use of paper bags would lead to cutting down more trees, though cities passing bans have responded to this by setting certain standards for the materials used. Paper takes up more space in landfills and costs more to have in stores (the cost of which is passed down to consumers). Biodegradable plastic is not currently a feasible alternative (although it may be in the future), because of the lack of commercial composting facilities necessary to recycle them. The amount of litter would not be greatly alleviated and the lightweight bags would still pose the same harms to wildlife.

Reusable bags are the preferred alternative. Those who oppose plastic bag bans claim that there is no evidence of mass appeal, that consumers will likely have to pay for these bags (which cost about $1), and that consumers will have to deal with the hassle of having to remember a bag before they go to the store. Despite these inconveniences, switching to using reusable bags rather than paper or plastic bags would be beneficial economically as well as environmentally. When Los Angeles considered banning plastic bags, the staff report presented to the council stated that "facilitating the increased use of reusable bags would conserve energy and natural resources, reduce the volume of waste disposed in landfills, diminish plastic bag litter, and invite citizens to actively participate in practices that promote a clean and sustainable environment."[5] Reusable bags come in many different types and have potential to appeal to the public as a socially responsible and perhaps even a fashionable way of shopping.

See Rise Above Plastics to learn more.


Plastic Bag Fact Sheet (Heal the Bay)

California Plastic Debris Action Plan

This article is part of a series on Clean Water which looks at various threats to the water quality of our oceans, and the negative impacts polluted waters can have on the environment and human health.

For information about laws, policies, programs and conditions impacting water quality in a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Water Quality" indicator link.