For environmentally-minded consumers, plastic garbage bags are an especially troublesome product because they are manufactured and purchased specifically to be thrown away. Their only purpose is to wrap up the rest of our trash to make disposing of it more convenient for us. You can help reduce the environmental impact of using plastic garbage bags by limiting their use, recycling them or reusing them.
Plastic is one of the least-recycled consumer products in the U.S.: Only about 6.8 percent of plastics generated were recycled in 2008, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This is significantly lower than the recycling rates for metals, paper and glass.
Plastic is made using oil. Making new plastic products from old plastic ones eliminates the need to extract more oil (a finite resource) from the earth. If you do not recycle plastic garbage bags, they either end up in a landfill, or get blown around as litter. In a landfill, the plastic never fully breaks down but decomposes into tiny particles which ultimately leach into the soil and water system, introducing chemicals that are hazardous to wildlife. When plastic bags end up as litter, they get stuck in trees and hedges, posing a risk to wildlife, or get washed into storm drains and ultimately our waterways. In the oceans, many marine creatures mistake plastic bags for food (especially sea turtles, who mistake them for jellyfish) and choke.
Where to Recycle
Generally, you can recycle plastic garbage bags by placing them in your curbside recycling bin (services and accepted products vary by community) or taking them to a recycling drop-off center. Most grocery stores have recycling bins specifically for plastic bags. If you drop off plastic bags that are not recyclable, they will ultimately end up in a landfill.
The Recycling Process
After you drop off your plastic garbage bags at a recycling facility, they are sorted from other recyclables, baled up and sent to a reclaiming facility. Here, the plastic is washed then ground up into small flakes. These flakes are compacted into pellets, which are then manufactured into new plastic items. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plastic bags that are recycled may be used to make carpeting, park benches, "plastic lumber" and even pedestrian bridges.
Reusing Plastic Bags
The qualities that make plastic garbage bags useful (i.e., they are waterproof, strong and flexible) are lost when you throw them away. As an alternative to regular recycling, you can re-purpose the plastic by using it for a variety of craft projects and turn what would otherwise be thrown away into something useful. Narrow strips cut from clean plastic garbage bags can be knit, crocheted or pleated, coiled and stitched into baskets, bags, rugs, and place mats, among many other possibilities. A small rectangle of knit or crocheted plastic strips makes a useful and long-lasting scouring pad for cleaning.
- Photo Credit garbage image by Mat Hayward from Fotolia.com
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