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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Those Pesky Plastic Bags

By: Guest Blogger Van Burbach, Ph.D, P.G.

As an environmental consultant whose work has focused on landfills for over 13 years, I can tell you that plastic bags are the bane of every landfill! Go to any active municipal solid waste landfill and you will see plastic bags everywhere: in the trees, stuck to fences, floating in retention ponds, clogging storm drains. They are next to impossible for the landfills to control. The wind catches them, and they are gone.

This is really bad news for the environment, because many of those plastic bags escape the landfills and end up in our streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. They are a hazard to fish, birds, and wildlife in general. Animals often accidentally ingest them or get entangled in them. They take hundreds of years to degrade in the environment, but as they do, they release toxic chemicals into the soil and water.

The good news is that there are a number of things ordinary people like you and me can do about it. As with so many things in the area of solid waste, the solution is three-fold: reduce, reuse, and recycle! The first thing we can all do is to reduce the number of plastic bags we use. Take reusable cloth bags with you to the grocery store, or any store, rather than taking your purchases home in plastic bags. If you forget to take them, ask for paper bags. Use reusable cloth or silicon storage bags or reusable glass storage containers to store food in your refrigerator instead of buying so many zip-lock bags.

I also recommend reusing the plastic bags you do get. Flour tortilla bags and bread bags are great substitutes for new zip-lock bags, and zip-lock bags can often be rinsed out and reused multiple times. Some people have come up with creative ways to reuse plastic bags. There is a group of ladies at our church who take plastic grocery bags and weave them into mats for homeless people. I have even seen clothing made from ironed out plastic bags!

Finally, if there is no further way to use a plastic bag, it can be recycled; however, do not just put it in your recycling bin. Most municipal recycling programs are not capable of handling plastic bags and they can really mess up the equipment used to sort recyclables, sometimes causing whole loads of otherwise recyclable goods to have to go to the landfill. Most grocery stores, as well as stores like Walmart and Target, have recycling programs for plastic bags. Often, they will even take things like newspaper bags, bread bags, or clean zip-lock bags. Please check with your local stores to see what their programs are and what they will take.

Plastic bags are a huge national and global environmental problem, but solving this problem begins with you and me. Please do your part to be a good steward of this beautiful planet we have been given. The earth and animals will thank you, and so will the landfill workers!


Van is an environmental geologist and a geophysicist working to create safer, cleaner landfills and protect the environment. He has been married to Lisa for 6 1/2 years and together they have a Shaklee business, working together to help others lead healthier lives, live younger longer, and protect the planet.


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