Where Do Plastic Bags Go?

By Shannon Bond

Each season has its unique traits. Some are good, some are not so good. This depends upon who you talk to of course. One of the benefits of winter is the view, which brings a barren type of beauty. There is no doubt that leaves and green landscapes are appealing, but as an outdoor enthusiast and trail junky (both on foot and on wheels), I can appreciate the outdoors in every variation. There is a lot to be said for increased visibility too. When the trees are bare, you can see the contour of the land and the flow of the trail.

Sadly, I can also see litter; particularly, plastic bags. When you are hiking down a trail it’s easy to reach down and pick that trash or stray bag up. The easy cleanup opportunity is lost when you are barreling down the highway on the way to work though. It is especially discouraging to see hordes of plastic bags clinging to the tops of trees. These bags have obviously been ejected from passing vehicles to be carried by the wind to their final resting place. I’m sure they are present all year, but the winter draws back the veil of leaves to reveal just how much wasted plastic we generate.

What happens to the rest of the plastic bags that don’t get stuck in our suburban forests? And, what can we do to mitigate our waste? For years I was under the impression that we could not recycle these plastic grocery haulers. I’ve reused them as trash bags, lunch bags and anything else I could think of, but ultimately that just prolongs their life before they end up in the landfill. Luckily, just like a lot of our modern day materials, these can be recycled. So plastic bags really end up in three places (like everything else really).

The landfill

In 2011, Americans produced around 250 million tons of waste, 32 million tons of that solid waste was plastic. That’s 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day! It’s up to you to help keep plastic bags and other waste out of landfills.  (http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/MSWcharacterization_508_053113_fs.pdf)


Recycled into other goods

There is hope because recycling and composting helped prevent 87 million tons of material from reaching the landfills that year. That gives us an average of about 1.53 pounds of recycled and composted waste out of our 4.4 pounds per person per day. About 11 percent of the recycled waste from the overall count was the category of plastics that include plastic bags. Unfortunately, only 8 percent of the total plastic waste generated was recycled in 2011. We can change this. There are more than 1,800 businesses in the U.S. that handle or reclaim post-consumer plastics. Put simply, bring your used plastic bags to the grocery store when you shop and drop them at the bag recycle bin. If your store doesn’t have a recycle service for plastic bags, ask the store manager why not or what the alternatives are. You can also find a curbside drop off. http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/plastics.htm.

Buy Recycled

Where does recycled plastic go? You handle it all the time and probably don’t realize it. Products include bottles, carpet, textiles, paper coating and even clothes.

In the trees (or anywhere else as litter)

Don’t let your bags end up here. It’s an eyesore for your community, dangerous for the animals in your environment and doesn’t contribute to the reduction of source materials needed for plastic manufacturing.

Plastic Bags

What’s the bottom line? Recycle your plastic bags, it’s easy. Why? It helps keep trash off the streets. It helps reduce the need for raw resources in manufacturing and it reduces the amount of waste that goes to the landfill; it even helps generate power. Did you know that you can save enough energy to power your laptop for 3.4 hours by recycling 10 plastic bags? You can find these fun facts and other great information here: http://www.epa.gov/recycle.


Shannon Bond  is a multimedia production specialist with EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. He has served in a host of roles including military policeman, corrections officer, network operations specialist, photojournalist, broadcast specialist and public affairs superintendant.

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