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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 head to the checkout counter and get ready to start bagging—and realize there aren’t any plastic bags. And paper bags, if you want them, are 5¢ each.

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

It’s About Sustainability

Why are plastic bags being outlawed? They’re not sustainable sustainable MINT IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES done so as not to cause permanent damage (adjective) Sustainable farming techniques can improve the health of farmland. . The things we use every day are sustainable or unsustainable, says Kate Melges, a Greenpeace plastics campaigner. Sustainable items are not harmful to the environment. Unsustainable items, such as plastic bags, affect the planet negatively.

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.


Could one small plastic bag really be responsible for so much damage? Maybe not. But 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 also problematic. According to Waste Management, only 1% are recycled. Most of the rest are thrown away and end up in landfills, where they take 10 to 20 years to decompose. They also blow into the environment. Streams carry them out to the oceans, where 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

In the future, Kate Melges hopes to see other bans on unsustainable plastic items, such as single-use water bottles, straws, and cups. But in the meantime, there are actions individual people can take to help solve the problem.

Try to reuse the plastic bags you have as many times as you can. For instance, 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 instead of a brown paper bag and throwaway plastic bags.

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 now charge shoppers 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.