Industry & Products

The majority of plastic retail bags shoppers use each day are made and recycled right here in the United States at dozens of facilities located across the country. All told, the industry employs more than 20,000 hardworking Americans.

Plastic bags are made from ethylene, a byproduct of the natural gas refining process. Plastic film bags are not made from oil—a common misconception. Before its use in plastic bags and film products, ethylene was commonly flared off.

Yes—plastic retail bags manufactured by ARPBA members contain, on average, at least 10% recycled content. The industry-adopted sustainability commitment set a target of raising this level to at least 20% recycled content by 2025.

With plastic retail bag manufacturers and recyclers located all across the country, the industry supports more than 20,000 American jobs. Plastic bag bans and taxes threaten this industry and its workers and undermine plastic bag and film recycling infrastructure.

The vast majority of plastic retail bags in the marketplace are made by hardworking Americans at manufacturing and recycling operations across the country. On the other hand, the alternative products that bag bans and taxes force consumers to use are imported from companies based in some of the worst-polluting countries in the world.

ARPBA and its members are among the first to say, “if you don’t need a bag, don’t take one.” Beyond encouraging consumers to be mindful about how they use bags, our members established a sustainability commitment for the industry to promote increased circularity by requiring minimum levels of recycled content and support consumer education around better recycling practices. Learn more about our sustainability commitment.

Recycling

Yes! Plastic retail bags are easily recyclable when returned to most grocery stores and large retailers. Over 90% of consumers have access to these drop-off locations. Next time you grocery shop, be on the lookout for these labeled bins usually located near the front of the store.

There are many other products that can be recycled alongside your plastic retail bags at these drop-off locations. The program also offers a good home for the air pillows or stretchy pouches that come with online orders, dry-cleaning wrap, and the stretchy plastic surrounding toilet paper, among other items

When returned to the store, these plastic retail bags and other films are sent to recycling facilities, most of which are in North America, to be sorted, cleaned, cut, and then melted down and extruded into recycled resin ready to be remade into something new. Manufacturers purchase this recycled content using it to create new bags, composite lumber, playground equipment, railroad ties, or even asphalt—decreasing reliance on virgin resin and promoting circularity.

Every plastic retail bag contains recycled content, how much varies by the design specifications, customer requirements and in some cases, state regulation. Every plastic retail bag manufactured by ARPBA members contains, on average, at least 10% recycled content. Learn more about how we are increasing the use of recycled content in retail bags through our sustainability commitment.

In 2020, 273.3 million pounds of plastic retail bags and other films were collected to be recycled through the store takeback program. In 2021, more than 264 million pounds of bags and film were returned through the store drop-off program, a 7.9% increase from the year prior. Through the store takeback program and continued education, these numbers can continue to grow.

This is a common misconception. Unlike other products, plastic retail bags and film are overwhelmingly processed by North American reclaimers. In 2021, more than 88% of bags and film returned through the store takeback program were recycled in North America, including through recycling facilities owned by ARPBA members.

Carryout Bag Policy

Bag bans force consumers to use alternative products that lifecycle assessments consistently show have grater environmental impacts. These alternative bags are often still made from plastics, imported from overseas, and cannot be recycled at the end of their lives.

Bag taxes are regressive, disproportionately affecting vulnerable families and communities, which research shows are less likely and able to switch to alternative products that may not incur taxes. Additionally, a study on Los Angeles County’s plastic bag found that shoppers will travel to stores outside of the taxing jurisdiction, choosing non-local businesses to avoid taxes and fees.

Bag bans and taxes are often intended to force consumers to use alternative products that lifecycle assessments show have greater environmental impacts that require substantially more reuses to offset. Research shows consumers rarely reuse these products enough time for them to be more sustainable, which is why we believe bans and taxes miss the mark on sustainability.

These types of policies force businesses to purchase more expensive alternatives that may be harder to acquire due to pricing, shortages, and supply chain interruptions—leading to higher costs that inevitably get passed down to the consumer. Confusing patchworks of local ordinances also create compliance headaches that expose small businesses to fines/punishment, while mandating businesses offer options that are worse for the environment.

Yes. For one example, studies have shown consumers are willing to travel to stores not affected by bans and taxes to avoid increased costs. As a result, stores within the regulated area lost revenue and shed jobs. Bans and taxes also drive the use and consumption of alternative products that have greater environmental impacts, undermining any assumed sustainability benefit.

The industry believes that stakeholders on all sides of the sustainability debate can collaborate on solutions-oriented public policy. As part of our sustainability commitment, the industry endorsed the importance of promoting increased circularity and end markets through recycled content requirements and have proposed a transaction fee as an alternative to regressive, per-bag fees and taxes that disproportionately harm vulnerable communities.

Comparing Carryout Bags

While retailers should have the freedom and flexibility to offer a variety of products to meet consumers’ needs, study after study has shown that when disposed of properly, the recyclable, American-made plastic retail bag is the option at the checkout counter with the smallest environmental impact.

Calling plastic retail bags “single-use” is a misnomer. Research shows that over 77% of plastic retail bags get reused by consumers—largely for household tasks like picking up after pets or lining wastepaper bins. This reuse helps eliminate the need for alternative products that may be more plastic intensive.

The most common reusable bags available at grocery checkout counters for $1-2 are still made from plastics like woven and nonwoven polypropylene, nylon, and PET. These plastic bags cannot be recycled and require substantially more reuses to offset their environmental impact.

Reuse is driven by consumer behavior, not inherent qualities of various bags. Any product, regardless of design, used in an unsustainable fashion is an unsustainable product. Research shows that plastic retail bags only require one reuse to offset their environmental impact, whereas cotton totes can require as many as 20,000 reuses—that’s every day for 55 years.

Reusable bags made from plastic film, which are scientifically tested to withstand 125 reuses and can be recycled at any time in their lifespan. Reusable bags made of any other plastic and those with stitched handles cannot be recycled.

Research has found that 97% of consumers admit to never washing their reusable bags. In the same study, 99% of bags tested were found to harbor dangerous pathogens like E. coli, K. pneumoniae, and Serratia ficaria. When these pathogens are transferred to food, consumers can and have gotten sick.

Sustainability & Environmental Impact

In 2020, recognizing that sustainable businesses required a sustainable product and a sustainable industry, ARPBA members adopted our sustainability commitment. The commitment includes, among other goals, benchmarks to increase the amount of recycled content in the industry’s products by 2025 and improve recycling rates through research, innovation, and education.

Every product that consumers rely on has environmental impacts, much of which is already “baked in” to the product. Lifecycle assessments of carryout bags have consistently found that when properly disposed of, the plastic retail bag is the option with the smallest environmental impact. Other types of bags require substantially more reuses to offset their greater, respective impacts. Learn more about various bags here.

As part of our sustainability commitment, ARPBA supports innovative approaches to promoting better recycling education and has partnered with retailers for years to establish a convenient network of store takeback bins for plastic bags and films. These bins, usually located near the front of the store, provide an end-life for your bags and other stretchy plastic film products from home goods.

According to the EPA, “plastic bags and sacks” account for 0.3% of municipal solid waste. While plastic retail bags are a fraction of this number, other research reveals that more than 77% of plastic retail bags entering landfills arrive contaminated, i.e. reused for household tasks prior to proper disposal.

For the industry, even one bag in the environment is one too many. However, litter survey data reveal that plastic bags do not account for significant portions of items collected during clean-up events. Keep America Beautiful’ s nationwide litter survey of roadways and waterways found that plastic retail bags accounted for just 0.6% of items collected at clean-ups on roadways and waterways.

Data from the Ocean Conservancy reveals that plastic retail bags make up a similarly minuscule portion of items collected at beach clean-ups, around 1%. Other research shows that 95% of river-based, ocean-bound plastic originates from 10 river systems in Asia and Africa, while improperly discarded fishing nets and gear account for the majority of plastic accumulating in ocean gyres.

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ABOUT ARPBA

The American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance (ARPBA) represents America's plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers. Founded in 2005, the ARPBA promotes the sustainable use, reuse and recycling of its products, advocates for sustainable, fact-based public policy and fights against taxes and bans that increase costs for stores and prices for shoppers.