Nobody Likes Litter: Plastic Bags & Recycling

Plastic bags aren't being recycled and drive up the cost of oil.


Unknown. Litter and marine debris are timely and important topics. But rather than checking the facts or contacting the experts, this author chose sensationalism over reality.


Presentations or slide shows with emotional images and alarming (but less-than-truthful) language like:

  • Reducing plastic bags will decrease foreign oil dependency
  • Less than 1% of bags are recycled
  • Plastic bags account for 10% of ocean debris


First, plastic grocery bags are an extremely resource-efficient choice at the grocery-store checkout.
Compared to paper alternatives, plastic bags require 70 percent less energy to manufacture and transport, generate 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, and create 80 percent less waste. And plastic bags are fully recyclable, so when we reuse and recycle them, their environmental profile gets even better. Of course, reusable bags are also a smart choice when it comes to the environment. In fact, many reusable bags are made from recycled plastics or are recyclable themselves.

Second, plastic bags are made primarily from domestic natural gas, NOT oil.
While the slide show correctly notes that plastic bags are made from polyethylene, in the United States this type of plastic is made primarily (80 percent) from North American natural gas, not from oil. In addition, most of the energy that is used to make plastic bags is contained in the end product, so as long as we recycle plastic bags, that energy is available for new products. Recycled plastic bags can be made into durable plastic lumber for outdoor decks, building and construction products, and of course, new bags. We all share the goal of energy efficiency, and the fact is that plastic bags are an energy efficient choice.

Third, plastic bags are fully recyclable, and recycling is on the increase.
Contrary to the slide show, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 10 percent of plastic bags and film are recycled annually in this country. More importantly, plastic bag recycling is relatively new, and the rates are growing rapidly. Between 2005 and 2006, the recycling of plastic bags and film shot up 24 percent to reach 812 million pounds in a single year. Of course, we can do better. With more and more grocery and retail chains implementing plastic bag recycling programs, and with some state and local governments taking action to promote plastic bag recycling, these numbers will continue to increase. In addition, over 90 percent of U.S. consumers reuse their bags for things like household waste basket liners and pet pick-up, but even so, plastic bags make up a small fraction (less than 0.5%) of the waste stream.

For more information on where to recycle in your community, see

Tip: In addition to plastic grocery bags, wherever plastic bags are collected for recycling, these products can also be recycled: plastic retail bags, plastic dry cleaning bags, plastic newspaper bags, plastic wrap from products like paper towels and toilet paper, and all bags labeled with recycling codes #2 (HDPE) and #4 (LLDPE).

Finally, plastic bags belong in recycling bins, not in our oceans or anywhere in the natural environment.
The fact that land-based debris is winding up in our oceans, in our waterways and on our beaches is a very real but very preventable problem. We can all play a role in making sure that used plastic bags make it into the recycle bin, and don't end up as litter. For our part, the plastics industry is working with nonprofit organizations, local governments and other industries to increase litter prevention programs and opportunities for recycling plastic bags. Together we can make a difference. Now you know the facts.