Plastic bags: they are our immediate past, our present, and thanks to how difficult it is to actually get rid of them, our future. At Topic, Rebecca Altman muses on the now-ubiquitous crinkly forms we see stuck in our trees and floating down our streets.
“The Plastic Grocery Sack Council says plastic bags can be reused in more than 17 different ways,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986, “including as a wrap for frozen foods, a jogger’s wind breaker or a beach bag.” By 1988, about 40 percent of US grocery bags were plastic. By 2003, the American Plastics Council estimated plastic’s market share was close to 80 percent. Estimates made over a decade ago suggest somewhere between 500 billion and 1.5 trillion plastic bags are consumed globally each year at a rate of more than a million a minute.
Though the bags are created to be thrown away, the combination of the bags’ long-lasting plastic and our inability to dispose of them properly makes them even hardier than they already are.
Technically, plastic bags don’t need to be tossed. They are recyclable, though few are recycled. They’re collected separately from other recyclables, typically at supermarkets, and are incompatible with comingled, curbside recycling, which rely on automated sorting machines. Bags are in fact the bane of the sorting process. They jam and clog the works. And so wish-cycled bags—those tossed into the recycling in hopes they’ll be recovered—often wind up in the waste stream, and in trucks bound for transfer stations and landfills. All it takes is a swift breeze to lift and liberate bags from dumpsters and dumps. In this way, they dodge all human designs for their discard.