90 Billion Plastic Bags Missing

90 Billion Plastic Bags Missing

April 29, 2014 - Here is an excerpt from a new book I have coming out in a couple of weeks. I wanted to share this information with you. The article is entitled: The Problem with Plastic Bags.

First of all, the biggest problem is with the sheer volume of bags being used. In 2008, according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, the United States consumed 102.1 billion PRCB’s (in one year). PRCB is short for “polyethylene retail carrier bag”. PRCB is what we call plastic shopping bags.(1)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012 there were 115,226,802 households in the U.S. That means that every household used approximately 885 plastic bags per year or 17 plastic bags per week.(2) Since the EPA estimates that only 12% of those plastic bags are recycled (12.2 billion), where does the other 90 billion go?(3)

Do they go into our municipal solid waste? Let's go to the EPA and see. Municipal solid waste (msw) includes all residential, commercial and business trash hauled away each week by the garbage man. In 2011, we as a society generated some 250 million tons of msw, of which 18% was plastic (all plastic, not just bags).

After recovery of materials in the waste stream by recycling and composting, 164 million tons of msw were discarded, of which 18% were plastics. Discarded means the msw was hauled to a landfill. So 29,520,000 tons of plastic was placed in landfills in 2011. Reportedly, about 3% of plastic waste is plastic bags, so 885,600 tons of plastic bags were placed in landfills.

According to the American Chemical Council, a plastic bag weighs 4-5 grams, which is .141096 ounces.(4) This means there is approximately 113 plastic bags in a pound. Therefore, if my math is correct, we placed over 200 million plastic bags into landfills in 2011.

Now obviously, I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, but here I’ve accounted for only about 12.4 billion of the 102 billion plastic bags used in one year in the United States. Again, I pondered, where did the other 90 billion go? I’ve already established that the bags didn’t go “away” because there is no “away”.

The “away” usually means our oceans – and lakes and rivers. The plastic bags that are not recycled and don’t go into landfills are the ones that litter our landscapes and pollute our rivers and lakes. Eventually, the bags make their way to the ocean via the wind or the rivers and there they remain indefinitely.

Could the 90 billion missing plastic bags be in our oceans, rivers and lakes?

The NRDC says that “plastic pollution affects every waterway, sea and ocean” in the world.(5) In 2006, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) stated: “Over 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of ocean today. In the Central Pacific, there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton”.(6) That was in 2006, eight years ago; imagine what the statistics are now.

Could it be possible that 90 billion U.S. plastic bags go into our oceans every year?

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References:

(1) U.S. Dept. of Commerce: http://www.usitc.gov/publications/701_731/pub4080.pdf
(2) U.S. Census Bureau: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html
(3) EPA.gov:  http://www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/materials/plastics.htm
(4) American Chemical Council: http://plasticbagfacts.org/Main-Menu/Fast-Facts/index.html
(5) NRDC: http://www.nrdc.org/oceans/plastic-ocean/
(6) UNEP.org: http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?DocumentID=480&ArticleID=5300&l=en