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Plastic Bag Facts - How many plastic shopping bags do we use each year and more!

We wanted to find out a bit more about plastic bags, and in particular the plastic shopping bag used at grocery stores and other shops. Here are a few quick facts (see below for details, sources, and calculations):

plastic shopping bags used each year
info graphic from a 2nd Grader, age 8

Plastic Bag Fact List - Top 10
  • 102 billion - Plastic shopping bags used each year in U.S. (2008).
  • 335 - Plastic shopping bags used per person (2008).
  • 6% - The recycle rate for plastic shopping bags.
  • 0.4% - The percentage of plastics in our garbage (1960).
  • 12.4% - The percentage of plastics in our garbage (2010).
  • 30X - The growth in amount of plastics that we throw away 1960-2010, fastest growing category.
  • 8.2% - The recovery rate of Plastics, lowest of all materials.
  • $1.5 billion - The value of the industry in the U.S. (bag sales 2008).
  • 30% - The level of imports we buy of plastic shopping bags.
  • 15 lbs - The weight of 1000 plastic bags.

Plastic Bag Facts - Sources

Our sources for this article include the The U.S. International Trade Commission for the total number of plastic bags used each year and other facts about the plastic bag industry, The Environmental Protection Agency Municipal Solid Waste Study of 2010 mainly Tables I-III, and the The American Chemistry Council which does a study of Plastic Bag and Film recovery rates and composition. You can help! Check out reusable shopping bags.

The most important source we found for this article was publication 4080 from the U.S. International Trade Commission who were investigating a petition from U.S. producers of plastic shopping bags. The producers were arguing that three countries Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietnam were illegally dumping product in the U.S. market, and in the case of Vietnam that the industry was unfairly subsidized by the government. The subsequent investigation includes interviews and documents gathered from the producers on various details of the business including unit sales, costs, etc.. This is also where we sourced the information on how much of the U.S. market is from imports, trade jargon like "t-shirt" bags etc..

The other main source was the Environmental Protection Agency study of Municipal Solid Waste (2010). This is where we sourced information on the growing percentage of Plastics in our waste stream.

We also used a study referenced and used by the EPA in their MSW document. This publication was sponsored by The American Chemistry Council, called 2009 National Postconsumer Recycled Plastic Bag & Film Report February 2011. We used this to help understand the amount of plastic film material recovered and to calculate the recovery rate of plastic bags.

Odds and Ends

The plastic shopping bag industry calls the bags, "PRCB"s for Plastic Retail Consumer Bag (what a mouthful). They also call them "t-shirt" bags (that's a bit better).

Composition of the recovered plastic bag and "film" material:

Commercial Film 71%.
Mixed Film 25%
Curbside Film 2%
Misc (balance)

Stretch film is identified as the majority item in the stream and is found in the commercial film and the mixed film categories. Plastic shopping bags are found mainly in the Mixed Film and Curbside categories.

As mentioned above, Plastics has been the fastest growing category of generated solid waste at more than 30X (30 times) 1960 levels! The next highest category was textiles (2.6X 1960 levels) and wood at about 2X.

Calculate the Recycle Rate of Plastic Bags

To estimate a lower bound on plastic shopping bag recovery, we used 40% of the mixed film component (25%), resulting in 10% of the total and added that to the 2% (curbside category) to arrive at 12% of the total. Twelve percent of 832 million pounds (recovered material) is about 100 million pounds, or about 50,000 tons. At roughly 15 lbs per thousand bags, we arrive at about 6.7 billion bags recovered which is about a 6.4% recovery rate.

What can you do?
Try a reusable shopping bag! They are cool, inexpensive and reduce plastic! See a bunch of designs shopping bags right here. A few are shown below.



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