plastic bag pollution

How Much Do Plastic Bags Contribute to Pollution? (2023)

Plastic bags have become a ubiquitous part of our lives. Unfortunetely the little convenience they bring comes at a big price for the environment:

  • their production uses huge amounts of resources
  • their usage leaks microplastics and chemicals
  • they are the top polluter of our world's oceans

In our new series "How Do ... Contribute to Pollution", we explore everyday items and the role they play in the big theme of pollution. 

Today: Plastic Bags.

In this article we’ll shed light on how these seemingly harmless carriers are threatening our planet across their whole lifecycle.



Plastic bags in numbers

Plastic bags are everywhere and their usage has exploded over the last decades.

plastic bags in numbers

500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. That number might be a little hard to grasp, so just imagine that this amounts to 1.37 billion per day, 57 million per hour and almost one million bags per minute.

The U.S., is one of the main contributers to this massive plastic bag flood. 100 billion plastic bags are used every year in America, which is more than 300 bags per person every year.

With this consumption, the U.S. contributes around 20% of the global total. While Americans apparently love the convenience that comes with plastic bags, other countries globally show what's possible.

Denmark, for instance, brought the average plastic bag usage down to only 4 bags per person.

The high usage of plastic bags is especially concerning, if we look at the average lifespan of a plastic bag. 

While the average plastic bag is used for only 12 minutes, it can take up to 1000 year to break down, while never fully biodegrading.

Now that we know the rough numbers, let's dive into the pollution that plastic bags cause step by step, starting with their production.


How plastic bags pollute during production

plastic bottle pollution during production


Plastic (bag) production is a resource intensive process that heavily relies on fossil fuels like oil and natural gas.  


One of the primary components of plastic bags is polyethylene, a petroleum-based product. To produce just one plastic bag, approximately 19 grams of oil are consumed. 

Now, that might not sound like much, but multiply that by the sheer volume of 500 billion plastic bags used worldwide every year, and this adds up to a staggering 60 million barrels of oil  (12 million barrels in the U.S. alone).

With the average car needing 12 barrels per year, that is enough to fuel 5 million cars over a year.

In addition to this extensive resource cosumption, plastic bag production also generates significant emissions.

While the plastic industry loves to advertise the low environmental impact of single use plastic bags, these opinions are comparing apples and oranges.

Yes, it is true that plastic bags produce up to 68% fewer greenhouse gases (GHG) and require only 6% of the water compared to paper bags.

But the analysis is lacking a couple of major aspects:

  1. Only because they require less water and emit less GHG than another single use solution, does not conclude that they themselves are a sustainable solution. Rather than comparing two single-use products, we should compare plastic bags to reusable alternatives than can be used hundreds or even thousands of times.
  2. The advertised sustainability of single use plastic bags completely omits their detrimental impact on the environment through their usage and disposal (see below)
  3. While they may emit less CO2 than other materials, the sheer volume still adds up to a significant CO2 impact.

It is estimated that the average CO2 impact of a single use plastic bag is 1.58 kg, which is equivalent to driving 8km.

You see where we are going... 

Our 500 billion plastic bags produced every year produce CO2 emissions equivalent to driving 4 trillion kilometers. That's like driving around the earth 100 million times.

Let us take another step in the lifecycle of a plastic bag and see how they pollute the environment during their usage.


How plastic bags pollute during their usage

The main concerns regarding plastic bag usage are related to chemical leakage and microplastics.

plastic bag pollution during usage


The majority of plastic bags are produced from polyethylene, a specific plastic polymer sourced from petroleum or natural gas derivatives.

This polyethylene is liquified and subsequently shaped into thin sheets, which are then sliced and heat-sealed into the recognizable bag form. The bag's usage varies according to its plastic thickness, often serving as single-use bags for items like bread, snacks, and frozen foods.

Similar to plastic bottles, plastic bags contain a whole variety of chemicals including phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). These chemical components have the capacity to migrate into food and beverages and can even permeate through the skin.

These additives have been linked to adverse health impacts, encompassing conditions like cancer, birth defects, and immune system suppression, affecting both humans and wildlife alike. 

Phthalates play an important role in enhancing the flexibility and durability of plastic bags. unfortunately, these chemical additives act as so called endocrine disruptors, which means they possess the ability to disrupt hormonal balance and have been associated with issues pertaining to reproduction and development.

BPA, deployed to bolster the rigidity of plastic bags, also wields the power to disrupt hormonal function. Furthermore, PVC, harnessed for its waterproofing attributes, has the potential to house noxious elements like lead, cadmium, and other toxic compounds.

Another major concern regarding plastic bag usage is the leakage of microplastics. 

A study from the University of Portsmouth compared to identical dinners. 

Both dinners consisted of chicken, potatoes, carrots, broccoli, and Yorkshire pudding, but there was a notable difference between the two. One meal was prepared using ingredients that had been wrapped in plastic, while the other was not.

According to the university's press release regarding the study's findings, the meal made from plastic-wrapped items contained about seven times more microplastics than the non-plastic wrapped one.

In total, the researchers discovered around 230,000 microplastic particles in the plastic wrapped dinner.

If you are wondering why that should be a huge "no-no" for using plastic bags, check out our article about microplastics in the human body and its effects.

If you've noticed the uprising of studies and articles during Covid-19 promoting plastic bags as healthiest option for food storage, we urge you to think twice and take them with a grain of salt.

Studies like this one are sponsored by industry associations and they promote single use plastic bags as the healthiest option for your family.

There are two main shortcomings in the promoted studies.

Firstly, it may be true that bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella, can thrive within reused bags, potentially leading to foodborne illnesses.

But that is true for all materials, including reused plastic bags, and the conducted studies tested bags that hadn't been washed or cleaned in months or even years.

Secondly, even in these heavily reused bags, the found strains of bacteria were harmless

We don't know about you, but to us it seems a lot more compelling to wash our reusable bags every once in a while rather than ingesting microplastics and chemicals from using single-use plastic bags.


How plastic bags pollute after disposal

It may not come as a surprise that the biggest concern around plastic bags is their disposal.

 plastic bags after disposal

Recycling rates for plastic bags are dishearteningly low. Of the 4.2 million tons of plastic bags that reach U.S. waste management facilities every year, only 10% are recycled.

Most bags either end up in landfills (72%), where they release harmful toxins and degrade over hundreds of years, or they are incinerated (18%), generating toxic fumes and greenhouse gases.

That of course only applies to the plastic bag waste that is actually properly managed.

The OECD estimates that 22% of plastic waste globally will not even reach a proper waste management facility and is mismanaged.

One of the most commonly used practices that fall under this category of mismanaged waste is open burning. 

Open burning is a waste management practice that is especially common in South Asia and the developing world, where it generates black carbon, a greenhouse gas that is around 5000 times more potent than CO2.

Estimates show that 40-60% of the plastic waste in developing countries is burned that way, contributing massively to global warming.

Even worse is the plastic waste that does not get managed at all.

Ocean cleanups and studies show that plastic bags make up around 14% of all ocean plastic, making them the top pollutant of our waterways.

Shockingly, plastic bags constitute a significant portion of ocean plastic and littered plastic, contributing to the massive plastic pollution crisis that harms our planet.

Plastic bags are especially dangerous to sealife, because they are often mistaken for prey like squid or jellyfish and are among the most consumed items.

In fact, it is estimated that 56% of the worlds whale, dolphin, and porpoise population have consumed plastic and plastic is causing the deaths of millions of marine creatures every year, with estimates ranging from one to one hundred million, depending on the species.


We cannot recycle our way out of this crisis

In a world of convenience, plastic bags have taken over our lives, but these carriers come with a hefty price for the environment.

Around 500 billion plastic bags get used worldwide every year, 1.37 billion every single day. The U.S. plays a big role, using over 100 billion bags annually, contributing about 20% of the global mess.

Plastic bags are used for only 12 minutes on average, but they stick around for generations, breaking down into microplastic and polluting our waterways.

Producing them is a similar mess. It takes tons of oil and gas, exhausting significant greenhouse gases.

And yeah, they're even affecting our own health, with chemicals and microplastics from plastic bags leaking into our food and drinks.

The thing is: we need stop using plastic bags and we need to do it now! They're clogging up our oceans, harming wildlife, and spreading pollution - all for 12 minutes of convenience.

It's time to SWOP them out for eco-friendly options and start using reusable bags.


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