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An Environmental Assessment

Shoppers use billions of bags each year to carry purchases home, with a substantial portion distributed by supermarkets and neighborhood grocery stores. In the US, as well as in many other countries, grocery bags are dominantly lightweight thin plastic. But thin plastic bags have come under fire because of their contribution to litter, problems caused by deposition in aquatic environments, and the persistence of plastics and plastic residues in the environment for long periods of time. Opposition is increasingly resulting in plastic bag bans, fees, and other measures designed to reduce plastic bag use and/or use of bags in general.

Opposition to plastic bag use poses a dilemma for policymakers. This is because when various types of bags are analyzed with respect to a wide range of environmental impact measures, results consistently indicate the impacts of thin plastic bags to be much lower than those of available alternatives. So, while single-use thin plastic bags are increasingly viewed as unacceptable from an environmental perspective, policy measures which result in increased consumption of other types of bags can have large adverse environmental consequences.

This report provides background information regarding environmental impacts of bag production, use, and disposal for various types of shopping bags. Measures designed to reduce bag consumption, and their outcomes are also discussed, as are steps that can be taken on an individual level to reduce impacts of bag consumption.

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