• Green Iowa AmeriCorps

From Ordinary to Taboo: The Plastic Bag and You

Emily Mueller, Iowa City



Plastic bags have been a mundane fact of shopping since the 1980s. Waterproof, durable, and cheaper to produce than their paper rival, plastic single-use bags are everywhere. In the United States alone, an estimated 100 billion plastic bags are used annually. On a global scale, the number rises to 1 trillion. As resilient as they are convenient, plastic bags are not biodegradable and may take up to 1,000 years to break down completely. This is especially an issue in countries that are experiencing difficulties with waste handling and removal; the plastic bag has sarcastically been referred to as the “national flower” ofKenya and South Africa. As bags break down and disintegrate, bits of plastic waste unintentionally wind up in the diets of livestock and wildlife. More and more we’ve been discovering the bodies of animals that have starved to death with stomachs full of plastic waste.


Of course, the most popular alternative to the plastic bag is the reusable one. There are hundreds upon hundreds of options to choose from, and many are available for purchase at the very stores that provide plastic bags for free. Keep in mind, however, that the reusable bag is only a preferable option if it, well, gets used. Depending on the material used to make your reusable bag, it can take less than 10 to over 100 uses to offset the environmental impact of a plastic bag. If you aren’t used to the routine of collecting your reusable bags before heading to the store, make sure to set a reminder to bring them before grocery shopping (or just leave them in your car).

Also, keep in mind that plastic bags are technically reusable bags. They may not last as long as the fancier ones, but you’ll probably be able to get more than one grocery trip out of them before their handles break. Once they do, you can recycle them. Check to see if your town allows curbside pickup for plastic bags, or where you can drop them off.

There are many ways to practice sustainability; the important thing is finding one that works for you.

Contact Us

UNI Center for Energy & Environmental Education
University of Northern Iowa
CEEE 109
Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0293

Phone: (319) 273-7233

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