Plastic Bag Facts

Plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes.

  • We (Americans) use ~100 billion plastic shopping bags each year. The estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion.
  • A single plastic bag has the life expectancy of 1,000 years.
  • It’s estimated that only 1-3% of plastic bags are recycled annually.
  • With exposure to UV rays and the ocean environment, plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. The majority of the plastic found in the ocean are tiny pieces less than 1 cm. Plastic debris attract and concentrate toxic chemicals from the surrounding seawater, and when consumed by marine animals, the toxins endanger both the creatures that ingest them and humans higher up on the food chain.
  • Marine wildlife often mistake plastic bags for food, especially sea turtles hunting jellyfish. High amounts of plastic material, especially plastic bags, have been found blocking the breathing passages and stomachs of many marine species, including whales, dolphins, seals, puffins, and turtles.

Plastic Bag Pollution in the News

> Plastic bag bans are working! 

While the findings have been heralded as evidence of successful policies to reduce plastic pollution, experts say the report shows that other items need to be dealt with as vigorously as plastic bags.

Despite the reduction in carrier bags, the overall amount of deep-sea litter remained roughly constant due to an increase in the number of other plastic items, including bottles and fishing debris.

> Ireland plastic bag ban greatly curtails plastic bag ban use

“In Ireland, my home country, plastic bags were once an essential part of daily life. They were often found polluting waterways and littering the countryside, fluttering in trees and hedges. After a 15 euro cent fee was introduced in 2002, however, annual use dropped from an estimated 328 to 14 per person by 2014.”

“Fees set above 15 cents that flow to an environmental fund strike a good balance between flexibility and effectiveness. They can be more politically acceptable than outright bans. For example, a survey of Irish citizens revealed that a remarkable 91 percent welcomed the fee because they witnessed the drop in litter and found reusable bags more suitable for carrying groceries.”

> MA votes to Ban Plastic Bags

“Massachusetts residents use over two billion single use plastic shopping bags per year, too many of which end up in our trees, parks, and waterways,” said Emily Norton, chapter director of Massachusetts Sierra Club. “Plastic does not biodegrade but rather breaks down into microplastics which end up in the bodies of marine animals and even our drinking water. Five minutes of convenience means hundreds of years of toxicity.”

> Paper or plastic? Our ongoing love affair with plastic shopping bags has environmental consequences.
> Whale found dying off coast of Norway with 30 plastic bags in its stomach 
> Plastic you can drink: A solution for pollution?

Art in Action

Students from around the world participated in the 2016 Ocean Awareness Student Contest, an annual interdisciplinary contest hosted by Boston-based Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs. These students focused on plastic bag pollution and its impact on marine wildlife.

Plastic Bag Pollution Resources


Watch a leatherback sea turtle chow down on its favorite dinner: jellyfish. A team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution captured this “turtle’s eye view” while studying the endangered animals off Cape Cod.


Artist: Alyssa Irizarry, From the Bow Seat