What's the Fuss about Plastic Bags?

> Old Habit: Using plastic bags for everything <

As a New Yorker, I share the city with 8 million other inhabitants (not including the wild ones) in the Big Apple. As you can imagine, New York City is a lot like other cities out there. There’s lots of people, skyscrapers, restaurants, and the list goes on and on. Something else that there is a lot of is plastic bags.

Why This Matters

These plastic bags find their way all throughout the city. Whether it’s in a tree or in the sewers, it presents an unsettling sight for locals and tourists alike. What’s worse is its effect on wildlife and on the environment. A lot of times, these plastic bags float into the ocean on the wind.  Animals, such as sea turtles, may mistake it for another food source (such as jellyfish) and can ingest the plastic bag. Unfortunately, the plastic blocks their digestive tracts and often resulting in death.

Speaking on a more microscopic level, plastic bags take a long time to decompose. It can take anywhere from 20 to 1000 years to fully break down (1). These plastic bags are breaking down into even smaller plastic particulate that can persist in the environment.  It might not be a turtle that eats these particles, but fish potentially could.  These plastics will eventually accumulate in the fish organs, resulting in elevated levels of plastic particulate in aquatic life (and seafood).

Do you happen to own a dog by any chance? Do you use plastic bags to pick up dog waste? Or perhaps you take your groceries home with a plastic bag? If so, you may be contributing more to landfills. Earlier, I noted that plastic bags can take many years to break down and decompose. Disposing of animal waste in a plastic bag prevents the bacteria from breaking down the organic waste matter, which increase the volume of very slowly-degrading waste you (or your pet) produce.

< New Habit >

With all the talk about plastic bags and how they can be harmful to the environment, what are some solutions to this dilemma? To live more environmentally conscious, we must restructure the way we purchase products in a store. An alternative to the one-time use plastic bag is a reusable bag. The beauty of it is that it can used thousands of times, without polluting waterways and the environment. You may also see the option for paper bags in stores, but that actually isn’t as environmentally friendly as you think it may be. It’s true that it will break down easier and it can be recycled, but the carbon footprint behind that paper bag is actually higher than that of a plastic bag (2).  You’re best off bringing a  reusable bag (even a backpack will do!) to the store.

Jumping back to dog owners, what should we do if it’s bad to use plastic bags for dog waste? Dog waste is an environmental pollutant that can contaminate water supplies if washed directly into a river or lake. Fortunately, there are some options in how you can dispose of your dog waste.  Since human waste is flushed down the toilet, animal waste can be too (3)! One solution is using water-soluble bags that can be flushed (e.g., FlushPuppies), which is prevents the creation of more plastic waste. However, you should check with your municipal sewage guidelines first. Some waste bags that claim to be “biodegradable” but actually can have the same effects as a plastic bag and stay in a landfill for the same amount of time. The bags may also need specific requirements to break down, which isn’t always satisfied at the municipal waste processing center.

Written by Victor Yin


  1. http://www.abc.net.au/science/features/bags/
  2. http://www.allaboutbags.ca/papervplasticstudies.html
  3. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/eco-friendly-way-to-dispose-dog-poop/