Here’s What Happens to a Plastic Bag After You Throw It Away

Globally, we use more than 1 trillion plastic bags each year. Yeah, that’s A LOT of plastic. Even more shocking, only 1 percent of plastic bags actually get recycled in the US.

Plastic shopping bags are a huge environmental issue, mainly because they are so ubiquitous and there is a lot of confusion around recycling them. The fact is, unless you are making a special effort to recycle your plastic bags at your local grocery store or drop-off location, your used bags are eventually ending up in one of 3 locations: the landfill, a tree by the highway or the ocean. And they’re not going away any time soon.

Here’s the timeline of what happens when you toss your plastic bags…

Plastic Bags in Bare Tree

That day…

After a trip to the grocery store, you pull out a single bunch of bananas from a plastic grocery bag. You stare at the bag guiltily, wishing you had a better use for it, but your drawer is already overflowing with too many saved plastic bags as is. So you crumple the bag up, toss it in your trash, and forget about it.

A few days later…

You take out your trash and it gets collected. The garbage bag breaks open in the truck and all the contents spill out. Your plastic grocery bag may catch a breeze and blow off the truck, getting tangled in a high tree on the side of a busy road where it will cling for years to come. Otherwise, the bag makes its way to the landfill.

1 year later…

You’ve probably gained a wrinkle or two, maybe another gray hair, but that plastic bag you’ve tossed hasn’t changed all that much. At this point it has probably reached its home, one of 3 locations:

  1. If the bag was in a tree, perhaps it fell, tattered, to the ground, where it was eaten by an innocent seagull. The plastic makes the bird feel unnaturally full and causes it to starve to death. The body decomposes in a matter of weeks, but the plastic bag in its stomach remains behind, fully intact.
  2. Your plastic bag may have been swept up in the breeze at the landfill and end up near a waterway. A few hard rainfalls later, it is in a trickling stream en route to the ocean.
  3. Perhaps the bag remains in the landfill, lifeless, perfectly preserved. In any scenario, it hasn’t broken down at all.

20 years later…

  1. If the bag was originally stuck in a tree, it finally decomposes after 20 years, thanks to photodegradation from solar UV light. Since bacteria do not eat plastic, it cannot biodegrade like a banana or a paper bag, which is why plastic is extremely difficult to break down.
  2. If it became an ocean-dwelling bag, it likely remains fairly intact, very slowly breaking down into smaller pieces of harmful microplastics, which are already destroying our oceans. And just because it is in the ocean doesn’t mean it is not your problem. Small fish feed on these plastic pieces, larger fish feed on small fish and we feed on larger fish. So, effectively, that fish dinner you or your loved ones eat in 20 years might contain toxic microplastics from your grocery bag. Ew.
  3. In the landfill, rainfall causes water-soluble chemicals from the plastic to get carried away and leached into the ground. From there, these chemicals pollute the water supply, poison local farmland and harm local animal and plant life.

500 years later…

You’ve come and gone, and so have your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren (and their great-grandchildren, too). And finally, in some massive landfill, your grocery bag that held that single bunch of bananas has hopefully decomposed—although we can’t be sure, since plastic bags have only been around for about 50 years.

The process may actually take over 1000 years, since plastic does not technically biodegrade and some types need UV light to break down. So it is possible that your grocery bag will be harming human health and the planet for the next 30 generations to come. At least no one can say you didn’t leave your mark.

If your plastic bag ended up in the waterways, it is still floating around the ocean in the form of microplastics, killing sea life (if there still is any in 500 years) and further acidifying the ocean. The sad truth is that, in the ocean, plastics may never fully break down, even in 1000 years.


Make a change!

Wow, that was bleak. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your humble actions today can make a huge difference for the next millennium!

While you cannot recycle plastic bags with your home recycling, they are fairly easy and convenient to recycle through a drop-off location. Just collect all of your plastic bags in a corner of your kitchen and bring them back to the grocery store, which should have a recycling drop-off for them. Find locations near you here. (Please do not try to recycle plastic bags in your home recycling. It causes major problems.) From there, the bags will be broken down into raw plastic pellets and get reused to create any number of useful products, from clothing to sunglasses to useful appliances. And hopefully those will get recycled or repurposed, and the cycle of good will continue.

Or, ideally, you can stop using plastic shopping bags altogether.

If you make one change this year to become greener, work on your plastic waste. Carry reusable bags with you to the grocery store so you don’t need plastic bags. Petition your local town to ban plastic bags from stores. Encourage more grocery stores to offer recyclable boxes (leftover from their shipments) for people who forget their bags. These changes are small, easy and highly effective once they are widely implemented.

It’s all up to you. Go ahead, lead the plastic-free revolution in your town, in your country, in your planet.

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Marie W
Marie W6 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill11 months ago

We always recycle

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemons11 months ago

Use them to make plarn

Clare O
Clare O'Beara11 months ago

bring your own fabric bags and wash them now and again

Clare O
Clare O'Beara11 months ago

use compostable bags

Clare O
Clare O'Beara11 months ago


Danuta W
Danuta Watola11 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Lorraine Andersen
Lorraine A11 months ago

They can make plastic bags and are compost able. If your city recycles plastics these could go in there. Would cost more for the stores thought I am sure....

W. C
W. C11 months ago

Thank you.

William C
William C11 months ago