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They don’t. They can last hundreds of years in landfills, unless exposed to the sun, which photo-degrades them into smaller and smaller particles. But even then, the plastic doesn’t disappear - scientists are now finding microscopic plastic particles in the world’s oceans and in the tissue of fish.
Although they are recyclable and biodegradable and do not create the same problems associated with litter and marine life, paper bags also have their own environmental impact. Manufacturing them requires trees as well as large amounts of water. It has been estimated that 14 million trees are cut down every year to make paper bags for shoppers in the U.S. It also takes a significant amount of energy to produce, distribute, and dispose of paper bags.
Being compostable and being composted are two different things. Compostable bags (such as those made from cornstarch) only break down in an active composting process. They do not decompose in the natural environment because of the lack of heat, or in landfills because of the lack of oxygen. When used to hold wet food waste that goes into an organics composting program, they can be beneficial, but otherwise they are no better than traditional plastic.
"Recycled paper bag” means a paper carryout bag provided by a store to a customer at the point of sale that contains no old-growth fiber and a minimum of 40% post-consumer recycled material and is 100% recyclable. The word “recyclable” must be printed in some manner on the outside of the bag, along with the name and location of the manufacturer and the percentage of post-consumer recycled content.
“Reusable bag” means either a bag made of cloth or other machine-washable fabric that has handles, or a durable plastic bag with handles that is at least 2.25 milliliter thick and is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse.
Reusable bags can be used many times, and thus create less landfill waste and fewer environmental impacts than other types of bags. Naturally, as with any product there are still some environmental impacts associated with their production and distribution, but reusable bags made from recycled polyethylene have a lower footprint than single-use plastic after as few as eight uses. They use 50% less energy, have 40% less impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and solid waste resources, and use 30% less water.
Reusable bags are widely available for purchase at select retail stores and markets and many organizations and businesses offer such bags through promotions and events for free. Don’t overlook the bags you already have in your home or office - tote bags made of canvas or nylon, for example.
There are no credible studies making a connection between reusable bags and food-borne illness. In fact, a 2010 study by Californians Against Waste shows that reusable bags have no more bacteria than other items you bring home from the store. Using common sense, washing your hands, and washing bags when they get dirty, virtually eliminates any risk of illness.
Getting used to new habits takes a little time and practice. If you forget your bag, most stores will offer reusable paper bags for a minimal charge, generally 10 cents.
To avoid needing to buy bags, keep reusable bags in the car and tuck a small, collapsible bag into your purse or glove box or attach one to your keychain for quick shopping trips. Pretty soon, bringing your own reusable bags into stores will become second nature - just like - fastening your seat belt.
Stores are required to provide customers participating in the California Special Supplemental Food program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and customers participating in the Supplemental Food (SNAP) program with a reusable bag or recycled paper bag at no cost at the point of sale.
The goal of this ordinance is to reduce overall plastic bag use. As illustrated in other communities who have passed similar ordinances, bans are better than fees at helping us reach this goal. California law (AB2449) prohibited charging for plastic bags, however it didn’t prohibit charging for paper bags.
As a result, retailers are able to recover their cost for providing paper bags, and this small fee helps encourages customers to use reusable bags, thus also reducing the use of paper bags.
You can avoid the charge by bringing your own bag or refusing a bag when you make a small purchase that is easy to carry without a bag. Just say no to a disposable bag.