What are we to do about the billions of plastic shopping bags that Americans use – and often throw away – each year?
There have been efforts on a grass-roots level to make something useful out of these discards. A group of Iowans recently made news by collecting plastic bags and crocheting them into plastic mattresses for the homeless.
According to a report issued late last year by research group IBEXWorld, the more than 3,300 companies that make up the nation's wholesale paper bag and disposable plastic product sector brought in $69.5 billion in revenue last year.
And while demand for paper packaging and plastic bags is expected to grow over the next five years as the economy revives, environmental concerns over the damage plastic bags can cause might bring some large changes to the market.
The Dallas city council is currently considering a ban on plastic shopping bags. And on New Year's Day Los Angeles became the biggest U.S. city to ban single-use plastic bags, while charging 10 cents for each paper carryout bag sold to a customer. The ordinance's intent, according to the city, is to reduce the "negative economic and environmental impacts" caused by the plastic film bags.
The ban initally affects all grocery retailers that make at least $2 million in gross annual sales, or use at least 10,000 square feet of rental space. Smaller, independent stores will also come under the ban beginning July 1.
"We use up over 2 billion plastic bags a year in L.A. alone," City Councilman Paul Koretz, who authored the measure, recently told KNX Radio. "It’s such a great source of litter, it causes a lot of harm to our rivers and our oceans."
California is also considering a state-wide ban on plastic bags, starting in July of 2015. The bill would also appropriate $2 million in state recycling funds to help plastic bag manufacturers retool their facilities and retrain their workers.
But not everyone is on board with the concept. Some critics say the bill would only replace the current, thin-film plastic bags with thicker versions that contain recycled plastic.
Nationally, reports say more plastic shopping bags are being recycled than in previous years, but the numbers are still small compared to the huge amount produced annually.
"The number of plastic bags being collected is very low compared to the 100 billion bags handed out in the United States each year," an unnamed legislative source in Washington, D.C., told industry trade PlasticsNews in 2012. ".... Besides, the industry still hasn’t adequately addressed the litter issue, or made a strong enough commitment to recycled content."