What’s in the bag?

Posted 5/8/19

Last month, New York enacted a new law that bans those single-use plastic-carryout bags we use to get our groceries and other purchases home from the store. Smaller plastic bags will still be …

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What’s in the bag?


Last month, New York enacted a new law that bans those single-use plastic-carryout bags we use to get our groceries and other purchases home from the store. Smaller plastic bags will still be available for produce, raw meats and at the deli counter, and we’ll still be able to buy trash bags and food storage bags for home use. Since the law won’t take effect until March 2020, merchants have time to use up their plastic bags on hand and arrange for alternatives.  

The reasons for the ban have been widely reported so I won’t rehash all of the details, but I will quote some alarming numbers: The average family uses about 1,500 single-use plastic bags each year, totaling 100 billion annually in the U.S. (23 billion in NY). About 90% of those bags are discarded after a single use; most are used for about 12 minutes. Millions of those bags become litter that clogs our waterways, eventually reaching the oceans where they kill the wildlife that ingest them. Plastic bags cost millions in damage and down time at recycling facilities each year, and are very complicated to recycle because they can be made of different varieties of plastic that don’t mix and are often dirty or contaminated. They don’t biodegrade. A new study at Britain’s University of Plymouth found that both conventional single-use bags and those labelled as biodegradable were intact and could carry five pounds of groceries after being buried in soil or submerged in sea water for three years.

Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, provides an even more alarming “big picture” perspective on the environmental and public health impacts of plastics manufacturing. A recent article by Nick Cunningham describes an ethane cracker plant being built by Shell Chemical Appalachia, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, in the town of Monaca in Beaver County, PA, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The facility will process Marcellus and Utica shale gas into plastic by “cracking” ethane molecules at high heat. The resulting plastic pellets will be shipped all over the world to be transformed into plastic products, including single-use plastic bags. According to the Clean Air Council, this $6 billion project will become the region’s largest emitter of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), as well as nitrogen oxide (NOx), which combines with VOCs to produce ground-level ozone and other dangerous pollutants, like fine particulate matter, all of which are associated with respiratory illnesses, asthma, cardiovascular disease and increased risk of some forms of cancer.

Two more ethane cracker plants are in the works for eastern Ohio, and some politicians seem happy to contemplate the creation of a tri-state petrochemical zone in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia that will rival Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, is quoted in Cunningham’s article to the effect that each of these cracker facilities will require 1,000 natural gas wells to keep it supplied with fuel and feedstock. The Clean Air Council notes that the Shell ethane cracker alone will emit 2.2 million tons of greenhouse gases each year—more than enough to roll back all of the progress the City of Pittsburgh has accomplished to undo generations of industrial air pollution and lower the GHG emissions that cause climate change. The International Energy Agency forecasts that petrochemical industries like fertilizer and plastic manufacturers will be the biggest driver of oil and gas extraction by 2050.

Plastics have an extraordinary carbon footprint and life-cycle cost, from the extraction of oil and natural gas to the manufacturing process, to shipping the plastic pellets to Asia for manufacturing into consumer goods and shipping the finished products back to the U.S., to the health impacts of the associated emissions and the challenges of disposal and recycling. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) 2018 report “Single-Use Plastics” estimates that only 9% of all the plastic ever produced in the world has been recycled.

It seems utterly absurd that we could ever consider trivial single-use applications like carryout bags, straws, disposable utensils and packaging. New York State’s ban is a small step in the right direction.

Environmental Science

and Technology Sunday



UNEP (2018). SINGLE-USE PLASTICS: A Roadmap for Sustainability



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