The Real Cost of Plastic Shopping Bags

 Posted by on February 28, 2008  Add comments  Tagged with: ,
Feb 282008

Worldwide, between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed each year, according to, a website launched to educate the public about the true costs associated with the use of disposable bags.

Because plastic shopping bags are free, we all just accept them and go about our business, even when our one little pack of gum is put into a plastic bag all by itself! Then we take them home, and they fill up drawers and cabinets, driving us crazy until we’re forced to haul a giant plastic lump of them back to the store for “recycling.” But are they really recycled?

The fact is that recycling rates for plastic bags are extremely low. Only 1 to 3% of plastic bags end up getting recycled.

Plastic bag recycling is just not economical. It costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags. The high cost, required sorting process, potential of ink contamination, and low quality plastic makes plastic bag recycling unappealing. Recyclers would much rather focus on recycling more viable materials, such as soda and milk bottles, which can be recycled far more efficiently.

I personally hate plastic bags. They often rip before I even get them to the car, and seem to breed and multiply of their own volition. I try to use reusable bags as much as possible, and I simply refuse a bag if I’m only buying an item or two. Reusable canvas tote bags can be purchased from, and I’ve also had good luck buying them cheaply at garage sales. Last summer I found a huge one in a free box–it’s bright yellow, and says “8th National Mother-Baby Nurse’s Conference” on the front, but who cares? It’s really big and durable, and works great for groceries and library books. The only place where I don’t have success in using canvas bags is at Wal-Mart, during my big, weekly shopping trip. I don’t have enough canvas bags to carry everything, and I’ve tried bringing back plastic bags to reuse, but the checkers are typically very annoyed by this. I’ve tried having them put stuff right in my cart so that I can just bag it myself, but the check-out stations are designed so that you can’t push your cart up next to the checker. Ironically, the plastic bag “carousel” is blocking the way.

For now, I too reuse the Wal-Mart bags in 2 of my bathroom trash cans (they won’t fit in the other one). I also keep some in the car for wet pants emergencies, and the rest go to my local consignment store. They reuse them, which makes me feel good, and when they have a shortage, they frequently offer a merchandise discount if you bring them some. If you have a consignment store in your area, you may want to look into this possibility.

Update: My husband and I solved the plastic bag dilemma with the creation of this DIY trash can designed to store and utilize plastic grocery sacks, and Wal-Mart is now much more reusable-bag-friendly.