Every year, people in the U.S. use more than 100 billion plastic bags. It takes 12 million barrels of oil to make them.
In landfills, these bags can take thousands years to biodegrade -- if ever -- and the plastic breaks down into tiny little particles that can eventually end up in the food chain.
In the Twin Cities, a crew of a couple dozen people collect plastic bags from area grocery stores. These crews work for a recycling program called "It's in the Bag," a partnership among grocery stores and some businesses.
The program hires adults with developmental disabilities to collect, sort, and bale everything from disposable grocery bags to zipper lock bags.
Not all the bags they collect can qualify for recycling. Bags are not accepted if they are crinkled, black, dirty, wet, or have strings.
Plastic bags are hard to recycle. The bags can jam sorting equipment. It's a labor intensive process because the bags have to be clean and dry.
The "It's in the Bag" program has kept 1.1 million pounds of plastic bags out of landfills each of the past two years. That's about 49.5 million plastic bags a year. "Before we pat ourselves on the back too much, we also know that we're just capturing a fraction of what's out there to be captured," said John Crea of Merrick Inc., the company subcontracted by Minnesota Waste Wise to do the pick-ups.
Plastic bags are getting a lot of attention worldwide these days. China and Bangladesh have banned them. Ireland imposes steep taxes on them. In the United States, San Francisco banned them and New York City requires recycling.
Lunds and Byerly's grocery stores are taking part in the Twin Cities recycling program. The stores recently introduced biodegradable plastic bags.
Spokesman Aaron Sorenson says it would be difficult for Lunds and Byerly's to ban the plastic bags outright.
"Many of our customers ask for plastic bags when they're in our stores," said Sorenson. "Of all the bags that we used in 2007, over 30 percent of them were plastic bags. So to just get rid of plastic bags at this time would likely upset many of our customers who ask for them."
Obviously, he knows what his customers want.
"I'm not in favor of the carrying bags, just because a lot of times we're coming in and picking up things and to have to remember to bring that bag every time. I just don't think it's very practical," said Gerri Kay Sharp, a shopper at the Byerly's in St. Louis Park.
"I realize environmentally it's probably a much better idea. But I wouldn't be in favor of going that way," Sharp continued. "Besides, I think a lot of people like me use the plastic bags as liners for our garbage at home, so I just wouldn't be in favor of moving away from that."
But some stores in the Twin Cities are phasing out the disposable plastic bag. Mississippi Co-Op, the Wedge Co-Op, and Whole Foods Market will only offer reusable plastic and cloth bags, along with paper bags.
These kinds of efforts may be the best solution to the plastic bag problem. Tim Farnan with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says that countries and businesses with restrictions on plastic bags have seen up to 90 percent reductions in their plastic bag usage rates.
"Any time you're able to see that reduction it's even better than recycling, because when you reduce the waste in the first place, then you don't have to transport it around. So those trucks aren't emitting CO2s and other harmful things into the air," said Farnan. "You don't have to do the manufacture process to remanufacture them into something. It's preferable even to recycling to just reduce waste."
Recycling plastic bags will remain voluntary in Minnesota for now. A bill to require recycling of plastic bags died in a legislative committee recently. Some lawmakers were concerned there are too few recycling facilities outside the Twin Cities metro area.
If you think paper bags are a big improvement over plastic ones, think again. The EPA says the production of paper bags pollutes the air and water more, and it requires four times more energy than the production of plastic bags.
The good news is that paper bags break down more quickly than plastic ones in landfills. Paper bags degrade after about 100 years.