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The Plastic Bag Problem

With bans on most single-use plastic bags, customers are considering greener options. AMAX PHOTO—GETTY IMAGES; DREW WILLIS

Imagine this: It’s Friday afternoon. You’re at the grocery store picking out snacks for a movie marathon. You go to check out and get ready to start bagging. Then you realize there aren’t any plastic bags. And paper bags are 5¢ each.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. If this hasn’t happened to you yet, it soon may. To help the environment, cities and states around the country are banning most single-use plastic bags. California was first. About seven states and 10 major cities have also passed laws.

It’s About Sustainability

New Rules On March 1, a sign at a grocery store in New York City announces that plastic bags will no longer be used and that paper bags are available for a fee.


The things we use every day are sustainable sustainable MINT IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES done so as not to cause permanent damage (adjective) Sustainable farming techniques can improve the health of farmland. or unsustainable, says Kate Melges, a Greenpeace plastics campaigner. Sustainable items don’t harm the environment. Unsustainable items, such as plastic bags, do. The United States uses 100 billion plastic bags a year. That many bags can do damage, both in the way they’re made and in the way we get rid of them.

The Life of a Plastic Bag

Plastic bags are made out of polyethylene. This comes from petroleum, a fossil fuel. Fossil fuels contribute to the greenhouse gases that are causing the glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise.

Disposing of the bags is a problem. According to Waste Management, only 1% are recycled. Most are thrown away and end up in landfills. They take 10 to 20 years to decompose. Others blow into the environment. Streams carry them to the oceans. Sea turtles mistake them for jellyfish and eat them. By 2050, some experts say there could be more plastic bags and packaging materials in the ocean than fish.

Fixing the Problem

Kate Melges hopes to see other bans on plastic items, such as single-use water bottles, straws, and cups. Meanwhile, there are things individual people can do to help solve the problem.

Try to reuse the plastic bags you have. They make good trash-can liners and doggy bags. Ask for a reusable water bottle instead of the kind you throw away. And if you’re packing lunch, use a cloth lunch bag and reusable containers.

REUSABLE BAGS Many shoppers are choosing to bring their own reusable cloth bags to stores


Buying sustainably can also save money. Think about it: In New York City, stores charge 5¢ per paper bag. If you use five bags a week, that’s 25¢ a week, or $13 a year. If you buy five reusable bags for $1 each instead, you’ll be making an investment in yourself—and in the planet at the same time. 

—By Rebecca Cohen

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Extra! Click here to read a related article from TIME for Kids.