Environmental Impact. Effects, Dangers of Plastic Bags

Posted on October 26, 2017 | Last Updated On: July 12th, 2021 by

Disposable shopping bags are convenient, but they are a major source of waste and pollution in our society. In this guide, we will teach you about how plastic shopping bags damage the environment. We also will discuss alternatives to using plastic shopping bags.

With this information, you will be able to make an impact in your community to reduce waste and pollution.

Plastic Shopping Bag Pollution

Plastic shopping bags present many problems to the world. Below are the biggest ones.

Human Impact

Plastic shopping bags on land are one of the most common types of litter. Build ups of huge quantities of plastic bags are well known to block local drainage systems, especially in developing countries. For example, the floods in Bangladesh 20 years ago were partially attributed to blockages in drainage systems from plastic shopping bags. Plastic shopping bags also pose health risks to human populations over the years as they leach toxins into water supplies.

Plastic bags also are problematic to recycle. While the recyclable symbol of three arrows in a circle is on many plastic shopping bags in the US, it often is a marketing trick. There are no regulations about how that symbol is used, and every city and county in America has different regulations about what can be recycled. Many plastic bags that are collected by recycling companies cannot really be recycled. Most of these bags actually end up in landfills and sit there for hundreds of years.

Animal Impact

Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean is the home of the biggest albatross colony on Earth. These birds fly there to next on these highly isolated islands, and they forage at sea, often hundreds of miles out, to look for food for offspring. Unfortunately, thousands of these precious birds have been found dead at Midway because they had ingested large amounts of plastic bag shards and pieces. All of the plastic that was found in these birds is brought to the island by adult birds who then feed it to young birds. It is estimated that four tons of plastic accumulates here daily.

The majority of wildlife on Earth is in our seas and oceans. This means there are hundreds of other animals and birds who are at risk of injury and death by ingesting or being entangled in plastic bag flotsam. Floating plastic shopping bags can be mistaken to be jellyfish by marine animals who consume them. One species that is at risk from the bags are sea turtles. They risk extinction in part because of ingesting large amounts of plastics. Shards of plastic fester in the stomach because the plastic cannot be properly digested.

An autopsy of the stomach of a beached whale found 20 square feet of plastic shopping bags that took up its whole stomach. Similar cases have been observed over the past few decades after plastic bags were introduced.

Environmental Impact

Litter from plastic bags is not just on land. Plastic shopping bags have heavily contributed to a huge amount of plastic debris found in the North Pacific Ocean. This is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is estimated to be double the size of Hawaii, and could even be as large as the entire continental US. The Wild Studies Institute has reported that as all drains go to the ocean, 80% of this trash in the ocean originated from land.

Kamilo Beach in Hawaii is often buried in several feet of plastic bags that washes in from the sea. There also is a joke in New York City, which uses a billion plastic bags per year, that the flower of the city is actually a plastic shopping bag stuck in a tree.

What You Can Do to Reduce Use of Plastic Shopping Bags

Clearly there is a problem with plastic shopping bags, but what can you do about it in your community?

  1. Educate yourself about how plastic bags affect the world. As you can read above, plastic shopping bags are a huge environmental problem around the world and are causing huge issues that affect human and animal health. Also, educate your friends, family, neighbors and children about the impact plastic bags have on the world.
  2. Use reusable shopping bags. Obviously, a major step is to use your own reusable shopping bags instead of plastic bags. Reusable shopping bags are available in many colors and styles. You also can buy them in various weights for different types of products, such as heavy cans and other weighty/bulky items.
  3. If you have any plastic bags at home, reuse them. Plastic bags can be difficult to recycle, so it is wise to reuse plastic shopping bags at home for as long as you can. They are good to line small trash cans.
  4. Find stores that offer a credit for using reusable bags. Some cities in the US have passed plastic bag bans and more are doing so every year. Some stores will offer a cash credit for bringing reusable bags. Ask the next time you are checking out if you can get a discount for using reusable shopping bags.
  5. Count the plastic bags brought into your home in a week. When we actually count the number of bags we bring in weekly, it can spur us to take action.
  6. Spread the word. Decline plastic bags at the checkout counter and remind the cashier and others around you that plastic bags hurt the environment. Yes, reusable shopping bags cost you initially, but they can be used endlessly and help the planet.
  7. Fundraising. Reusable bags are extremely versatile, which makes the possibilities for fundraising virtually endless. You can sell them outright, use them in concert, school or college, community church or with another fundraiser, or even create themed gift totes by filling them up with an assortment of items.

Plastic Bag Recycling Tips

It is true that recycling plastic bags is problematic. That is the reason it is best to reuse plastic bags as much as possible. That said, there are ways that municipalities have been encouraging citizens to help them to recycle plastic bags.

One of the ways that plastic bags can be recycled is to place them in the recycling bin, with one caveat. People need to wad up the plastic bags into roughly the size of a soccer ball in some cities and tie it. Then, you can place the bags in the recycling bin. If you follow these steps, most city recycling facilities in the US can recycle the bags.

The problem is when people put individual bags into the recycling stream, and this action usually causes problems with recycling machinery.

These steps may not apply to every jurisdiction. So, if you need to recycle some plastic bags, you should check with your city or town to determine how to do it in a way that is friendly to the environment.


Hopefully, this article has made clear the dangers and problems with plastic bags, and what you can do to reduce the problem.

Learn More

To learn more about plastic pollution, consult the resources listed below.

About the Author

Douglas Lober Chief Product Specialist

Doug Lober is Co-Founder and Chief Product Specialist for ReuseThisBag.com. Lober is a passionate environmentalist with roots in the Southern California surf culture. Over the last 15 years, Lober has launched and supported a number of environmental initiatives around the land, sea, and air. Today, he continues to provide and support the use of eco-friendly promotional products for small, medium, and Fortune 500 companies. You can learn more about his extensive background in the industry on Linkedin.com, Quora.com, Instagram.com, Twitter and Alignable.com

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