IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Plastic bags feel integral to modern life. But they're a relatively new addition we could live without.

We’d landed on the moon, the Beatles had broken up and Studio 54 was in full swing before the first plastic grocery bags were ever introduced in America.
New York Budget Includes Plastic Bag Ban, Mansion Tax, Manhattan Toll
A pedestrian carries plastic shopping bags in New York on March 31, 2019.Natan Dvir / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Plastic bags are so ubiquitous they’re almost invisible. We rely on them to carry everything from routine grocery purchases to one-off drugstore runs to food delivery and more. Unless you live somewhere where plastic bags are banned — like Hawaii — or taxed — such as in Washington D.C., where both paper and plastic bags incur a 5-cent fee to help raise funds for environmental cleanup — it’s easy to think of a flimsy plastic bag, destined for the landfill or, worse, the oceans, as an extension of our hands, a place to stuff whatever we must buy at any given moment without any pre-planning or precaution for the environment.

Our reliance on one-time-use plastic bags, however, is relatively new. We’d landed on the moon, the Beatles had recorded their last album and broken up, and Studio 54 was in full swing before plastic grocery bags were introduced in America, circa 1979. From there, it took three years for major grocery stores to catch on to the usefulness (and cheapness) of the invention. They weren’t totally ubiquitous until 1985, following a 1984 New York Times piece suggesting plastic bags were the chic urban alternative to paper bags — the bulky, ugly practical objects that had been invented over 100 years prior.

Plastic bags, though a worldwide phenomenon, feel quintessentially American.They allow stores a cheap, easy solution to keep more profits (paper bags cost, on average, five times more than plastic ones) and offer space for free advertising. The concept of marketing on a free, disposable vessel to carry your purchases, however, dates back to the 1870s, when Massachusetts designer Margaret Knight revolutionized disposable packaging, creating a machine to produce flat bags that would unfold to have rectangular bottoms — as still seen in sandwich bags and grocery bags today. A decade later, the bag was improved upon, mass-marketed and yes, used as a way for shops to advertise their logo and name on the exterior.

The concept of a one-time use bag is consumerism at its best (or, perhaps, its worst). We can shop for whatever we want, wherever we want and whenever we want without worrying about the logistics of the purchase, perhaps even boasting about where we spend our money based on the elite store’s branding. Especially in our e-commerce world, what’s the point of buying Gucci loafers on Fifth Avenue or a Louis Vuitton purse on Rodeo Drive if you don’t have a glossy disposable shopping bag to flaunt post-purchase?

Whether paper or plastic, Americans do seemingly feel responsible for properly disposing of the free items known to cause environmental harm. Making plastic bags involves heating oil or natural gas at extreme temperatures, creating a non-biodegradable substance, pollution and using roughly six percent of the world’s oil to create this harmful plastics.

Americans use roughly 100 billion plastic bags each year (that’s 300 bags annually per American, i.e. less than one bag a day, but that adds up quickly). Each of these bags takes an estimated 500-1,000 years to decompose in a landfill — if they make it to a landfill.

Of the trillions of plastic bags used worldwide each year, it’s impossible to know how many are disposed of properly, though roughly 1 percent are recycled, and an uncountable number become litter. A 2011 coastal cleanup campaign in Massachusetts led to volunteers collecting nearly 6,000 pounds of plastic bags. Disposable plastic bags like those are responsible for the death of marine wildlife, such as birds and turtles, which mistake plastic particles for food, and larger mammals, including whales and dolphins, which accidentally ingest the toxic plastic.

The negative side of lightweight plastic bags is not new information. Eager to mitigate pollution and a potential environmental downfall, Ireland became the first nation to institute a plastic bag tax, back in 2002, charging 22 euro cents at the time (which was then about 33 American cents) for consumers who wanted a plastic bag. Plastic bag usage dropped 95 percent.

Worldwide, bag taxes and full-on bans are gaining steam with environmentalists: 127 countries currently have some type of limitation on plastic bag distribution. Single-use plastic bags are still complimentary in most American states, though, and when more municipalities and states push for legislation to regulate plastics, controversy generally ensues. But the price we pay for using them is much higher than the minor lifestyle tweaks we can make to quit the toxic objects for good.

Some argue that tote bags, typically made from non-biodegradable materials or materials, like cotton, that require significant amounts of processing, are just as bad for the environment if not reused a significant number of times. And though this may be true, a tote bag user is hopefully more accountable for their tote, not tossing the bag on a street corner or watching it fly out of a city trash bin without chasing the flimsy plastic down the seat. While a plastic bag maybe has a few extra uses in it (dog poop, lunch), a tote bag shelf life can be interminable — especially if my stash of tote bags in is any indication. If a strap breaks, you can sew it. Stain? Toss it in the laundry. Nothing lasts forever, but a properly-cared-for reusable bag has a pretty long lifespan.

The privileged ethos of disposable consumerism, whether it manifests in unthinkingly grabbing a plastic bag or replacing an iPhone annually (though electronics account for about 70 percent of landfill waste; for what it's worth, every Best Buy in America accepts used electronics for recycling) or leasing a car to drive the newest model every odd year, needs to shift as we accept human culpability for climate change and our massive carbon footprint. Plastic bags are far from necessarily ubiquitous and, knowing what we do now — as opposed to in 1984, when they became so‚ should encourage us to evolve beyond relying on the damaging disposables.

We all share one environment — one that has a grimmer and grimmer projection of sustaining itself as humans continue to trash it. A plastic bag blown down the street of small town in America can easily end up in the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, or across the globe in a whale’s belly, beaching the gigantic mammal, disrupting the aquatic systems as they’ve existed for thousands of years, interrupting our food chain, source of water, and yes, an entire way of life. One bag isn’t going to automatically cause all this, but the trillions still used worldwide have dire consequences for all 7.7 billion of us.

I’m not a climate scientist nor am I an environmental expert — I’m a millennial who loves modern conveniences and sometimes still grabs a plastic straw out of habit when I’m not thinking about the impact. I read a lot and I care a lot, and if all signs are pointing toward humans destroying the earth, with minute-yet-routine-actions like using plastic bags, maybe it's finally time we think just long enough to stop using them.