The next time you’re asked, “Paper or plastic?” consider this: According to the Worldwatch Institute, 4 to 5 trillion plastic bags—including large trash bags, thick shopping bags and thin grocery bags—are produced globally each year, with roughly 80% of them used in North America and Western Europe. Of that, it is estimated that as many as 100 billion single-use plastic bags are thrown away annually in the United States. To get a small glimpse of what this might look like, click over to this fascinating photo by photographer Chris Jordan depicting 60,000 plastic bags, the number consumed in the U.S. every five seconds in 2007.
Plastic bags start as crude oil, natural gas or other petrochemical derivatives, which are transformed into chains of hydrogen and carbon molecules known as polymers or polymer resin. By some estimates nearly 12 million barrels of petroleum oil (or fuel equivalents such as natural gas) are used to produce 100 billion plastic bags. Given what we know about both fossil fuel scarcity and the detrimental impacts of fossil fuel extraction and use on the environment, it is truly a travesty to so carelessly waste this limited and valuable resource.
Ban the Bag!
One solution, of course, is to stop using plastic bags. Plastic bag bans are taking off across the country with over 100 community bag bans or fee ordinances in place across 16 states. Hawaii is currently the only state in the nation to adopt a full statewide ban. Internationally, 19 countries from Bangladesh to Ireland have passed bans. Reducing plastic bag usage and encouraging shoppers to use reusable bags will help lessen our demand for new fossil fuels and reduce our environmental impact. This, of course, is the best-case scenario. As a nation we need to begin to move away from the very concepts of “single-use” and “waste.”.
Plastic Bags for Fuel
It will be a long time before plastic bags go the way of the dinosaurs, so we are encouraged to learn of a new technology aimed at turning plastic bags into transportation fuels such as diesel and gasoline, and into other high-value products such as natural gas, waxes, and lubricating oils. Researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago (the latest city to pass a plastic bag ban, effective August, 2015) recently discovered that plastic bags can quite efficiently be turned back into crude product through an oxygen-free heating process known as pyrolysis. According to the researchers, “You can get only 50 to 55% fuel from the distillation of petroleum crude oil. But since this plastic is made from the petroleum in the first place, we can recover almost 80% fuel from it through distillation.”
Currently, the majority of plastic bags are recycled into composit lumber, which is used for decking, door and window frames, park benches and the like. Companies like Trex are leading this field as one of the largest recyclers of plastic bags in the U.S.
Upcycled and reusable products like this are an important part of the waste-reduction puzzle. But with trillions of new plastic bags entering the waste stream every year, this cannot be the only solution. As with most sustainability issues, there is no singular answer. We need to reduce our use of plastic bags and we need to find new and creative ways to reuse and recycle this valuable product. After all, what we consider trash is in fact not trash at all. Every item that we throw away was made from natural resources such as water, wood, oil, and energy. As such, those very same natural resources are embedded in the end product we consume. If we smarten up and start to value those products in the same way we do our raw natural materials, we could truly transform our world.
Director of Programs