Developed by the Swiss in the 1960s and introduced in the U.S. in the 1970s, the common ‘t-shirt’ plastic shopping bag took off in the 1980s as a cheap alternative to paper bags at grocery stores. In the 1990s the impacts of plastic pollution were becoming evident with marine life dying from ingestion of or entanglement in plastics and the ‘discovery’ of the Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre by Charles Moore.
Some people initially claimed that plastic grocery bags were better for the environment because too many trees were being cut down for paper bags. Over time it became clear that plastic bags also posed a problem as the simple convenience turned into a major addiction. By 2009 the average American used about 360 plastic shopping bags per year, often double-bagging and sometimes taking a plastic bag for a single item that’s already in a packaging bag or easy to carry. It’s becoming clear that reusable bags are the best alternative to any type of carryout shopping bag. Check out this blog post for info on the economics of plastic versus reusable bags.
For several years, Surfrider chapters around the country have worked to support plastic bag bans or fees to reduce plastic bag use and the impact plastic bags have on the environment. We're proud to say that these actions are proliferating!
The U.S. EPA estimates that 380 billion plastic bags were made in 2009 and 102 million of those were plastic shopping bags. Most 'conventional' plastic bags are manufactured from oil or natural gas and it is estimated that somewhere between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used yearly worldwide. Nearly 20 billion are used annually in California and most end up in landfills or as litter. In addition to harming the marine environment, producing these bags requires the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil per year and an unknown amount of natural gas according to plastic industry statistics.
A huge problem with plastic bags, plastic bottles and other plastic materials is that they can take decades or centuries to degrade. Essentially, they're with us in the environment forever.
Also see the infographic from our friends at One World One Ocean illustrating the harm plastic bags and other plastic materials inflict on the ocean.
Are bioplastic bags the answer? Read more about those here.
Rise Above Plastics!