Americans need to stop using plastic bags, help reduce pollution.


As the world becomes more globalized and industrialized, the complex issues surrounding natural resources have come to the forefront of the world’s collective conscience. A lot of attention is given to short-sighted, albeit pressing, issues such as the availability of and accessibility to crude oil. The fact remains, however, that there are far more pressing, lasting concerns that loom. Global warming and the destruction that’s being done to the ozone layer used to be a distant concern; people generally felt that the point of no return had not been reached yet, and therefore there was still plenty of time left to discover and enact a solution. More than that, there are already major issues resulting from pollution that have begun to affect many people’s daily lives on a grand scale. A great number of people lack access to clean drinking water, for example. Many people also have little to no access to uncontaminated soil in which to grow their own crops. Those people whose livelihood depended on the sea are now in peril as well. While these issues can often times seem overwhelming, there are small changes that can easily be made, many of which will yield a great return of positive effects. One such action would be to ban the use of plastic bags in America and encourage the use of reusable shopping bags, which would result in profound pollution reduction.


One reason that plastic bags should be banned is that the production of disposable plastic bags requires large amounts of oil. Plastics are derived from petroleum, which is a byproduct of the refining process in which crude oil is transformed into usable fuels. Thus, not only does the manufacture of plastic bags require the use of oil, but the bags themselves are also made out of crude oil derivatives. However, while many people fail to consider that the plastic bags themselves are made with oil, the truth is that the majority of their staggering oil requirements results from the manufacturing process. For this reason, banning the use of plastic bags can have an enormous positive impact on the environment. This is especially true if new mandates were to be put in place in the largest U.S. cities, which logic dictates would be the heaviest consumers of them. In fact, Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, estimates that a San Francisco ban on plastic bags “will be conserving 430,000 gallons of oil used to make traditional bags – the equivalent of keeping 140,000 cars off the street for a day” (Arnoldy). If such a dramatic improvement could be made just by banning petroleum-based plastic bags in one American city, then the potential for pollution reduction nationwide would be exponential. After all, as Arnoldy’s piece states, “the US uses 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually,” and as jaw-dropping as it may seem, “an estimated 12 million barrels of oil is required to make that many bags” (Arnoldy). The rest of the nation’s major cities need to follow San Francisco’s example and ban the use of petroleum-based bags; the action would result in a sharp reduction of oil consumption, therefore also reducing pollution by means of greenhouse gases and other harmful chemicals.



While the consumption of oil that’s needed to manufacture plastic bags is a definitely a huge concern, there is also the issue of what happens with these bags once they reach the end of their life cycle. Far too often, these bags are treated as though they are truly disposable; they are frequently treated as regular trash, and are recycled at very low rates. Once again, looking at San Francisco’s numbers yields some astonishing facts. In Arnoldy’s article, Mr. Blumenfeld also asserts that “after 10 years, the recycling rate for plastic bags in San Francisco – which is pointed to as a model nationwide – is 1 percent, so 99 percent failure" (Arnoldy). Those figures are especially disconcerting when one considers the reputation that the city of San Francisco has for being green and environmentally friendly. If San Francisco and its citizens, who are notorious for prioritizing environmental issues, are this poor at recycling plastic bags, then one can reasonably expect that the rest of the country’s major cities are failing at similar rates, if not worse. These figures simply highlight the pressing need that the rest of the nation has to lessen, if not completely eradicate, its dependence on single-use plastic bags. Just as San Francisco acts as a shining example of environmentalism in the state of California, the state itself plays a similar role when compared to the other states of the union. Even then, despite California’s reputation for being a state that is especially mindful of pollution, it shares another similarity with its flagship green city: on a state level, plastic bags just aren’t being recycled enough. According to Gold's article, CalRecycle, a California state agency, estimates that only five percent of all plastic bags get recycled (Gold). With these kinds of numbers, it’s clear that relying on the recycling process does not make the use of plastic bags sustainable.




The single most important factor that drives the need for a ban on plastic bags is the disastrous results that stem from littering. The United States is a country rich in natural beauty, and it’s a shame to see one of its most precious resources, its varied wildlife and the magnificent habitats in which they live and previously thrived, needlessly decimated by pollution. Unfortunately, plastic and plastic bags form a large contingent of the pollution that litters the natural environment. This is especially true of the marine habitat, which is substantiated by claims made by marine researchers in Vauhini Vara’s article that “plastic doesn't biodegrade, and sometimes floats in the ocean and breaks into tiny bits that sea animals swallow” (Vara). While it’s true that all plastics are at risk to end up in the oceans, the fact of the matter is that disposable plastic bags are by far the largest culprit when it comes to man-made ocean litter. CalRecycle and its studies are particularly damning of plastic bags, stating that “the thin, fly-away plastic bags often end up in rivers, creeks, beaches and parks and are part of a flotsam of plastic waste that compose nearly 80 percent of all marine debris” (Gold). Standing in agreement is Christina Santarpio’s article, which surmises that plastic bags are particularly harmful, as they are a main contributor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (101). The fact of the matter is this: not only are the plastic bags contaminating the oceans and destroying the visual beauty that is American coastlines and beaches, but they are also known to pose a direct threat to the sea turtle population as well as other other marine wildlife (Gold). Thus, it is not just an issue of aesthetics, but rather it is an issue that speaks directly to the safety of the oceans. As is well-known, the oceans are already in a state of peril, with over-fishing and destructive harvesting techniques already threatening biodiversity. The symbiotic balance that mankind maintains with the ocean is a delicate one, and because plastic bags act as a direct threat to that relationship, they should be banned.



A common outcry made by plastic bag proponents is the claim that plastic bags shouldn’t be vilified to the extent that they have been, as they are in many ways environmentally superior to using brown paper bags. There is actually a degree of merit to this position, as one Manhattan Beach study, which was described in Santarpio’s article, “acknowledged that more energy is used and wastewater produced in producing and recycling paper bags” (100). There are additional claims from the pro-plastic bag contingency which claim that the manufacture of paper bags actually “emit more greenhouse gases, among other harms,” which likewise holds some merit (Vara). While there are inherent negatives associated with bags made out of each material, the fact remains that plastic bags are still the greater of two evils. Low recycle rates coupled with the effects that plastic bag litter have on the environment outweigh any small advantages they might have over paper bags. Santarpio’s article also details a study which concludes that “because paper bags can hold more, 1000 paper bags would replace 1500 plastic bags according to a conservative estimate” (100). Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the viewpoint that favors the use of plastic bags over paper bags suffers from the either-or fallacy; there are more than two options at play here. The greatest long-term solution to the issues presented by both plastic and paper bags is for people to abandon both and start utilizing reusable bags. Reusable bags have become increasingly popular in recent years, with numerous retailers offering customers small discounts when they bring their own bags. A lot of these same retailers even sell their own reusable shopping bags, which can generally be purchased for about two dollars each. If a customer were to receive a ten cent discount every time that they brought their reusable bag along with them when they shopped, then the bag would pay for itself in twenty visits, thus alleviating any concerns over added cost.


Pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases are global concerns that can no longer be put on the backburner. While they used to be distant worries that many just assumed future generations would deal with, the scientific community tells us that these issues now sit on our doorstep; they can no longer be ignored. While it might seem like a small step given the enormity of the problem, banning plastic bags would be a great stepping stone for Americans. It would begin the process of trading in daily conveniences for long-term environmental safety. It would allow them to integrate principles of conservation and reduction into their daily routines, thus preparing them for the more sweeping changes that are on the horizon. Banning plastic bags just makes too much sense not to do it; the positive effects in terms of pollution reduction will be both immediate and long-lasting.


Arnoldy, Ben. "Seldom Recycled, Plastic Grocery Bags Face Bans in S.F." Christian Science Monitor. 29 Mar. 2007: n.p. SIRS Issues Researcher.Web. 31 Oct. 2014.

Gold, Lauren. "Shoppers to Change Habits as Plastic Bag Ban Becomes Law." Pasadena Star - News. 01 Oct. 2014: n.p. SIRS Issues Researcher.Web. 31 Oct. 2014.

Santarpio, Christina Marshall. "Save The Plastic Bags?: How The California Supreme Court Weakened Environmental Impact Report Requirements In An Attempt To Protect The Environment." Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 39.(2012): 97-110. GreenFILE. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.

Vara, Vauhini. "Plastic-Bag Defender Becomes a Pariah." Wall Street Journal. 29 Mar. 2011: 29. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.


Most Helpful Girl

  • I wouldn't consider myself an "environmentalist" but this is a well-written article and was interesting to read. Thanks for sharing :)

    • Thank you. Yeah, environmentalism can often be seen as a four-letter-word, and probably for good reason, so I get avoiding the label. I bet it's analogous to how some don't want to be seen as a feminist, yet they support equality for women.

      Thanks for reading it. :)

    • haha well in my situation, I've just never really thought about these issues but I enjoyed reading your article as it was very informative and made me consider things I hadn't thought of before. I also like that you cited your sources, that's a plus :)

    • Thank you very much! :)

Most Helpful Guy

  • I hope one day women can appreciate men that are more environmentally friendly. I mean I still try to be, even though women don't approve of it. For some reason being environmentally is a feminine trait.

    Okay on topic now, yes, I do agree Americans need to stop using plastic bags. Other countries, particularly China, no longer use plastic bags. They are out like more than 5 years ago. There are so many people in the United States who have completely different ideas with one another. It is hard for Americans to really get onto the same page. No mater, it's no excuse It's still time for Americans to get with the program.

    • I haven't noticed that women are unappreciative of male environmentalism. In fact, my experience has been the complete opposite. I often tell women (and men) that I mostly care about the environment because I want to preserve the Earth and all it's beauty for future generation, and perhaps even my own children someday. That sentiment is usually met with a great deal of approval. Regardless, that's not why I do it, and I know that you also proceed as an environmentalist regardless of what people think. For that, I say "good on you!"

      I also agree with you about Americans getting on the same page. Often times the issue of the environment is politicized, which seems VERY strange to me. I am an unapologetic member of a very blue state, and it feels *sometimes* like reds states prioritize it less? I know that it a generalization, and I'm totally not saying that *all* conservatives care less for the environment. It's just a general trend I have noticed, and one that I am very confused by.

Join the discussion

What Girls Said 1

  • I agree with everything you said. I've been using nylon bags for groceries for years.

    • Thank you for commenting, and thank you for caring about the environment. Both are genuinely appreciated!

What Guys Said 8

  • This was an extremely well-written and well-thought out essay, and I applaud you for raising these very important issues. Thank you for trying to raise awareness. Humanity must always strive to live in a sustainable manner with this one Earth that we inhabit. We are a long way from doing that. Great work with this essay!

    • Thank you very much! It's genuinely appreciated, and I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly. Thanks.

  • I am not an Americans, and still I have to say, the same goes for the rest of the world.

  • Here in Wales we've had a bag charge for a few years. Its only about 5p to buy a plastic bag (more for a reusable) but its really motivated people to think in advance and bring their own.

    • Yeah, I think bag charges really help. Once it becomes more economically sound to bring your own reusable bags, a lot more people will go that route. Money talks.

  • This is true. Come up with a renewable solution to plastic bags (that are also biodegradable), make them cheaper than current crude-oil based plastic bags and you'll solve the problem.

    Good luck!

    • Yup, first man or woman who does this will make a shit-ton of money, that's for certain.

      Maybe starch-based (corn) will be the way this leads us. But then there's the issue of GMO corn running even more rampant, which could be plugging one hole while creating another.

    • I see no reason why cellulose-based organic waste plastic wouldn't work, since there is plenty of organic material left over to recycle.

      But I'm a dreamer, not a scientist. Agree that the GMO crap needs to stop.

  • @DodgersGM Great post, I agree with what you are saying. Unfortunately I think it will take charging people for bags before we change everyone.

    • Thank you! @fiego

      I too believe that charging people for disposables will help speed things along. People get charged five cents per bag at some local stores already, and they're freaking out about it. They're also taking home less bag though, too.

  • Why is this post singling out Americans. Surely if plastic bags are bad, then everybody should stop using them.

  • True, and non-Americans need to quit pumping out so many babies...

    • Being mindful of overpopulation is definitely something that needs to be considered, I agree.

  • or we could just recycle them.

    • "There's harsh economics behind bag recycling: It costs $4,000 to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32, says Blumenfeld. Other refuse, like aluminum cans, are actually profitable."

      From one of the articles I posted as a source:

    • actually my understanding was that they're not necessarily recyclable in the traditional sense but that the plastic is used as one of the components in the manufacturing of some other material. i forget the details.

    • Yeah, they might be returned to their fuel state?

      I don't know for certain, but I do believe you're right that they aren't recycled to become another plastic item.