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Thinking About the Environmental Issues of Single Use Plastic

By considering environmental issues and giving single use plastics a pass, we can eliminate excess waste and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It’s time for that, don’t you think?

black coffee in an orange tin mug

When we start making a lot of what we need at home and opting for second-hand, gently used items, two things happen. One, we save money. It’s less expensive to cook healthy food at home. And two, we reduce our waste.

Get inspired to change

The movie, Bag It, begins as a “regular guy,” Jeb Berrier, wonders about the plastic bag he uses to carry a yogurt home in. [Scroll down to watch the trailer.] As he researches and learns more about the environmental impact of choosing a plastic bag, his questions lead to more questions.

What about plastic bottles? How does buying plastic impact the earth and our health? And what about the new baby he has on the way?

black garbage can overflowing with rubbish

Bag it

I found the movie to be reminiscent of a Michael Moore documentary. The horrifying facts presented are balanced with a sense of humor (which I think helps viewers refrain from freaking out over the content). My family particularly enjoyed the exchange between Jeb and the fast food restaurants as he tried to convince them to put his order in containers he brought from home rather than the disposable ones.

The restaurants wouldn’t do it, due to cross-contamination issues. Jeb noted that they didn’t mind the cross-contamination that happened when money (is there anything dirtier?) to pay for the meal came through the window.

As someone who’s trying to avoid BPA in our diets, I found it really interesting when Jeb strayed from his usual plastic-free lifestyle for two days.

He ate pre-packaged food, microwaved meals in plastic containers, used deodorant and lotions commonly sold at drug stores, and sprayed the air with air fresheners. In just two days, the levels of chemicals that appeared in his body became frighteningly elevated.

It’s not only environmental issues that are concerning!

Related: Green Living: 66 Small Changes to Make a Big Difference

plastic bottles and marine debris -- environmental issues in plain site on a beach

The environmental issues of single use plastic

Even though I consider myself pretty savvy about plastic bags and other plastic waste, the movie still shocked me with the facts reported. Here are just a few:

  • The good old USA uses 12 million barrels of oil each year to manufacture plastic bags. Twelve million! For a product that is intended to be used once and disposed of. This is sheer lunacy when there’s talk of a fossil fuel shortage and people are at war over oil. Is the convenience of a plastic bag worth the life of a soldier?
  • Plastic bags are the number one consumer item in the world.
  • America uses 300 million paper cups (which are, incidentally, lined with plastic) a day. If you’ve got a Starbucks habit, it’s time to change how you do things.
  • We add 800 pounds of packaging (packaging!) per person, per year to the waste stream.
  • One million plastic cups are used on airlines every five minutes.
  • Americans spend twelve billion dollars on bottled water every year. Water! Something that you can get out of your tap for almost free. That doesn’t come in disposable, BPA tainted plastic.
  • Two million plastic bottles are consumed in the U.S. every five minutes; less then 25% are recycled.

Truly, what has happened to us that we can continue living in a manner that is so environmentally unsustainable?

I live on an island that is impacted by the Pacific Gyre more commonly known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The trash and plastic that washes up on the southern beaches of Hawai‘i Island is a shocking peek at the environmental issues that face us. These are not the beaches that come with hammocks and umbrella drinks; these are far from the tourist scene and just horrifying.

Birds are dying with bellies full of plastic because there’s no more room in their guts for the food that will sustain them. Turtles and sea lions die, entangled in plastic waste.

Related: Oil & Fuel: Simple Changes You Can Make to Cut Usage

A million! Every day!

Bag it encourages change

I’m inspired to eliminate even more plastic waste from our household. We rarely come home with a plastic shopping bag. We do bring home plastic containers of sour cream and Craisins in plastic, though. And I’ve mentioned before, some of our soil amendments came in plastic bags. From here on out, I’ll seek out bulk methods of buying these items. (Not easy, as I don’t have a local grocery store that offers a large selection of bulk items.) And perhaps I’ll even try my hand at making sour cream?

“Think about it—why would you make something that you’re going to use for a few minutes out of a material that’s basically going to last forever, and you’re just going to throw it away? What’s up with that?”
—Jeb Berrier

Bag It — Take a sneak peek

This is the first three minutes of documentary film BAG IT. This film examines the impact of plastics on the environment, marine animals and human health, along with a number of other environmental issues.

UPDATE: Shirley Thompson added this in comments – Just wanted to let your readers know that the film is on DVD and is currently available for sale in the educational market to schools and libraries through New Day Films,

Interested folks could ask their local library to purchase it at the institutional price. Then everyone in your community would have access to the film. (Most distributors offer discounts for public libraries.)

And it’s possible to contact the filmmaker Susan Beraza through the New Day site. Perhaps she may have a limited number of copies for sale for individuals and/or community groups.


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46 comments… add one
  • Gene Feb 3, 2013 @ 4:30

    We’ve been trying to get rid of the bags. We try to use cloth bags. It’s better. However, what’s really working for me is to make baskets using the plastic bags as cordage. I wrap my fabric around the plastic. No one ever sees the plastic bags, but they’re there! When I make a sort of big basket, like the link here, I can use over 100 bags. Sometimes, I ask friends for bags. Be careful, one week I got over 400 bags!! To date, I’ve buried over 2000 plastic bags in fabric. It doesn’t eliminate them but if they’re here to stay a while at least I’m helping to keep them out of the Pacific Vortex.

  • nancyn Apr 25, 2012 @ 8:22

    This movie is about so much more than plastic bags.  Seriously.  If you haven’t seen it and are environmentally conscious, make sure to watch it.  Even better, watch it with a group.  Our City Forest is hosting a FREE movie screening of this film at San Jose State University and Beth Terry, from myplasticfreelife and interviewee in the movie will be there to answer questions after the film as well as sign her new book!!  It’s a wonderful oppotunity, if you are interested or want details either go to the bag it Find a screening website or call 408-998-7337 ext 108.  Pass on the word and hope to see you there!  It will be a great chance for people to all come together and share our stories.

  • Attainable Sustainable Mar 30, 2012 @ 8:26

    Michelle Pettinger: Freezing is tough. I covered this a bit, here. (Check the comments, too.)

  • Ida Walker Mar 30, 2012 @ 3:06

    I watched it and learned a lot. I use plastic bags sometimes, but none are single purposed. I use them multiple times, Still, I’m going to reduce my use of them.

  • Michelle Pettinger Mar 29, 2012 @ 18:13

    changing food storage to glass has been easier than not purchasing all of the stuff that comes in plastic,that will be a challenge and i’m thinking what is an alternative to freezing garden produce in plastic freezer bags?

  • Attainable Sustainable Mar 29, 2012 @ 18:13

    Michelle Pettinger: I just went through and tossed all of my plastic containers (well, thrifted them). Now I’m forced to use glass. I’ve got some bowls w/lids and I use wide mouth canning jars. One benefit: you can SEE what’s in the containers, so less waste. One step at a time…

  • Michelle Pettinger Mar 29, 2012 @ 18:13

    found it & watched it, hope we can all figure out less plastic!!

  • Attainable Sustainable Mar 29, 2012 @ 18:13

    Linda Moffitt: Stick around and we can all work on less plastic together! Eye opening, isn’t it?

  • Linda Moffitt Mar 29, 2012 @ 14:06

    Including my fridge

  • Linda Moffitt Mar 29, 2012 @ 14:06

    Just watched it, wow! Nearly everything in my fridge is…… Plastic

  • Michelle Pettinger Mar 29, 2012 @ 14:06

    will look for it, thanks

  • Ida Walker Mar 29, 2012 @ 14:06

    Thanks for passing along the info.

  • Melanie Haiken Jul 8, 2011 @ 14:07

    This is a huge bugaboo for me as I’m a forgetful person and even though I own tons of reusable grocery bags, I tend to forget them until I’m in the checkout line and them am afraid of alienating everyone behind me while I run to get them. So imagine how thrilled I am to discover these things called “chico bags” that you roll up into tiny pockets and keep in your purse? I have two now that go everywhere with me and my kids laugh about them but honestly I think it’s the best invention!

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 14, 2011 @ 21:30

      I’ve got a couple of Chico bags (and knock offs) that I love for those times that I forget. But I have to be honest. After years of working at it, I’ve finally managed to get to the point that it’s ingrained that I don’t even walk into the store without my bags. Keep practicing!

  • Jane Boursaw May 4, 2011 @ 14:15

    Thank you for this! I haven’t seen this film and will keep an eye out for it.

    • Kris Bordessa May 4, 2011 @ 19:56

      Jane, you should! And please do a review on Reel Life w/ Jane. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the film and the state of plastics in the USA.

      • Jane Boursaw May 4, 2011 @ 20:17

        Will do! I’ll probably have nightmares after watching it.

  • Donna Hull Apr 28, 2011 @ 16:42

    I had no idea using plastic bags was this big of an issue. Of course, in my mother’s day, she would have washed out the plastic bag and reused it. Of course she grew up in the depression and WWII when conserving was a necessity. Thanks for educating me. I’ll take a hard look at my plastic bag use from here on out.

  • MyKidsEatSquid Apr 27, 2011 @ 10:53

    I’m wondering if the film gets into how other countries handle the plastic bag issue. My mom sent me my favorite reusable grocery bag from the Philippines and it’s so much bigger and easier to use (and collapses more easily) then some I’ve bought in the US. I’ve had a couple rip already but of course, I don’t want to throw them away?!

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:17

      The movie did address the fact that plastic bags have been outlawed in many other countries, some of them what we consider “third world.” India, China, and many countries in Africa were on the list.

  • merr Apr 27, 2011 @ 9:46

    I’d like to see this movie. I recently found a reuseable glass bottle for water – VOSS WATER (bought several) – and love love love that I do not have to use plastic and buy plastic and that I always love the way the water tastes when I drink from it and that there are no BPAs to worry about!

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:18

      Oh, I’ve seen those glass bottles, I think. Does it have a rubber protector?

    • nancyn Apr 25, 2012 @ 8:24

      Come see it at SJSU on Tuesday May 22nd if you are in the area and still interested.  It will be a free screening of the film!

  • Jennifer Margulis Apr 27, 2011 @ 6:13

    I need to see this movie. I will ask the library to buy it. I’d like to buy a copy myself. Thank you for this. Is anyone listening? I see people putting bananas in plastic bags, and taking a plastic bag for a pocket-sized item. It is CRAZY. We don’t realize how pernicious and destructive our habits have become.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:20

      It IS crazy. But as to the question of people listening, I think some are. In fact, I emailed my local grocer to suggest that maybe they don’t need to package all of their produce in bags (argh!) and I actually got a call back and the produce manager seemed genuinely interested in hearing what I had to say. Step by step; little by little.

  • Ruth Pennebaker Apr 27, 2011 @ 5:06

    Thank you so much for posting this, Kris, and reminding us not to get lazy about this problem. It’s so easy to look the other way …

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:20

      We’ve all got to look straight ahead and don’t get lazy. It’s not even any HARDER to bring bags of our own; it’s just creating a different habit!

  • sheryl Apr 26, 2011 @ 12:15

    Wow. I always knew about the downsides of plastic bags, but to see the numbers in print is absolutely shocking. I have a very hard time accepting a plastic bag from a store and try to remember my cloth bags wherever I go. But I wonder about the paper cups; how to get around that? If the airlines, for instance, offered real glassware, there is the problem of someone possibly using that as a weapon. And then think about all the water that it would take to wash all the glassware. Not that I’m advocating plastic/paper cups and dishes; I’m not. It is just so frustrating to be searching for an answer and not being able to find one. But I do agree that if we all did our part to cut back on plastic bags it would make a huge difference.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:23

      Sheryl, I know. Part of it is that we live entirely differently now than we did 50 years ago. Airline transportation is so common now. When I travel I do so with an empty stainless steel bottle that I can fill once I get past security. That way I have enough water (they’re so stingy with water on planes!) and I can refuse the plastic.

  • Susan Johnston Apr 26, 2011 @ 11:50

    Sounds interesting so I added it to my Netflix queue. He makes an interesting points about cross contamination in money, which most people don’t think about (otherwise you’d be too grossed out to leave the house!). I use my own bags whenever possible, but sometimes I find myself buying something when I don’t have a reusable bag with me. I keep them in the car, but I try not to drive unless I have to (and some of my purses are so small I can’t fit an extra bag). I guess using a plastic bag is probably the lesser of the plastic bag vs. driving everywhere evils.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:24

      Have you seen the foldable bags with little clips? You might be able to attach one to your purse strap.

  • NoPotCoooking Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:00

    Wow. I knew it was a problem, but had no idea it was this big. I would like to find a way to buy produce without plastic. I do not want to put my apples in a plastic bag to be able to buy them!

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:24

      You don’t have to put your apples in plastic to buy them. There are alternatives; stay tuned!

  • Living Large Apr 26, 2011 @ 2:20

    Thanks for writing about this film. I haven’t seen it yet, but intend to. We started using cloth bags back in the 1980s (I still have the original ones that we still use). My husband worked at a landfill and I was horrified at his stories of birds with the plastic wrapped around their necks and the dead ones they found with plastic sticking out of their beaks. Using cloth bags is truly one of the easiest and cheapest things we can do that will make a big impact on our environment. My husband scoffed at the idea over 20 years ago. “It won’t make a difference,” he said. At last count, we had saved over 10,000 bags from the landfill. That makes a difference in my book.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:25

      That’s great that you’re still using those bags 20+ years later. That sure says something, doesn’t it??

  • sarah henry Apr 25, 2011 @ 20:57

    This sounds like a great documentary to watch with my enviro-conscious pre-teen. I have a brown paper bag full of plastic containers waiting by the door for thrift store delivery. After all the recent accounts re BPA in plastics, I’m slowly but surely switching to glass.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:26

      It’s definitely an eye opener. I’d like to do a community showing of it.

  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart Apr 25, 2011 @ 13:56

    Definitely want to see this film. I’ll at it to my Netflix list … maybe if we all do that, they’ll get it sooner. And, I’ll check our local PBS for airings.

    It’s incredible how much junk society produces and how far it reaches into the oceans and into our bodies.

  • Alexandra Apr 25, 2011 @ 10:24

    I’m looking forward to seeing this film. Tonight, at Town Meeting, Wellfleet is going to try and sack the bag and shift people to bio-degradable packaging for take-out. Here’s a preview of what I intend to say:

    “Toxic chemicals in the environment are no joke. I just read a book called The Polluters. It is about the strategies, used by the chemical industry over the years, to avoid regulation. I also brought Slow Death by Rubber Duck, another one of my favorites. And, check out my Chico-bag reusable bag, which I carry with me.

    Today the American Academy of Pediatrics took a stand against toxic chemicals in the environment.

    Whoa, you say. What does all this have to do with biodegradable packaging?

    My response is everything. We need to change the way we conduct our lives, person by person, day by day, plastic item by plastic item. We add 800 pounds of packaging (packaging!) per person, per year to the waste stream.” (Thank you, Kris! I found that tidbit here.)

    “Running a green bed & breakfast has shown me that tourists do understand environmental issues. Our guests come back from dinner happier when they eat at restaurants that have already embraced bio-degradable packaging.

    Restaurant owners, think of this as an opportunity. Put your brand on reusable totes and sell them.

    I salute the Recycling Commission, for all it has accomplished, and urge you to support this article.”

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 25, 2011 @ 13:47

      Can’t wait to hear how it goes. Will you post about it?

      • Alexandra Apr 29, 2011 @ 1:30

        Indefinitely postponed. I wrote about it on my blog. Check out one of the comments: Southhampton succeeded. It just banned plastic bags.

  • Shirley Thompson Apr 25, 2011 @ 6:47

    Terrific film…I saw it at a Surfrider Foundation screening earlier this year, and have GREATLY reduced my use of disposal plastic as a result. Just wanted to let your readers know that the film is on DVD and is currently available for sale in the educational market to schools and libraries through New Day Films, Interested folks could ask their local library to purchase it at the institutional price (most distributors offer discounts for public libraries), then everyone in your community would have access to the film. And it’s possible to contact the filmmaker Susan Beraza through the New Day site. Perhaps she may have a limited number of copies for sale for individuals and/or community groups.

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 25, 2011 @ 13:48

      Shirley, thank you. I’ve added that information to the post as an update. I’d love to see about having “Bag It” shown at my local theater.

  • debbie koenig Apr 25, 2011 @ 6:26

    Wow, those statistics are HORRIFYING. And oddly, no PBS station in the NYC area (where I live) is showing the film. Hmph.

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