A plastic bag used to collect waste on a street in Paris

A plastic bag, poly bag, or pouch is a type of container made of thin, flexible, plastic film, nonwoven fabric, or plastic textile. Plastic bags are used for containing and transporting goods such as foods, produce, powders, ice, magazines, chemicals, and waste. It is a common form of packaging.

Most plastic bags are heat sealed at the seams, while some are bonded with adhesives or are stitched.

Many countries are introducing legislation to phase out lightweight plastic bags, because plastic never fully breaks down, causing everlasting pollution of plastics and environmental impacts. Every year, about 1 to 5 trillion plastic bags are used and discarded around the world. From point of sale to destination, plastic bags have a lifetime of 12 minutes. Approximately 320 bags per capita were used in 2014 in the United States of America.[1]


Plastic bag of water softener salt. A handle is die-cut through the thick plastic to allow carrying.
Stand-up pouch containing nuts

Several design options and features are available. Some bags have gussets to allow a higher volume of contents, special stand-up pouches have the ability to stand up on a shelf or a refrigerator, and some have easy-opening or reclosable options. Handles are cut into or added into some.

Bags can be made with a variety of plastics films. Polyethylene (LDPE, LLDPE, etc.) is the most common. Other forms, including laminates and co-extrusions can be used when the physical properties are needed. Plastics to create single use bags are primarily made with Fossil fuels. International Plastic Bag Free Day is celebrated on July 3.

Plastic bags usually use less material than comparable to boxes, cartons, or jars, thus are often considered as "reduced or minimized packaging".[2] In June 2009 Germany’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research concluded that oil-based plastics, especially if recycled, have a better life-cycle analysis than compostable plastics. They added that "The current bags made from bioplastics have less favourable environmental impact profiles than the other materials examined" and that this is due to the process of raw-material production.

Depending on the construction, plastic bags can be suited for plastic recycling. They can be incinerated in appropriate facilities for waste-to-energy conversion. They are stable and benign in sanitary landfills.[3] If disposed of improperly, however, plastic bags can create unsightly litter and harm some types of wildlife.[4][5] Plastic bags have low recycling rates due to lack of separation ability. Mixed material recycling causes contamination of the material. However, plastic bags are reused before discard at a rate of 1.6 times.[1]

Bags come with various features such as carrying handles, hanging holes, tape attachments, and security features. Some bags are designed for easy opening and have reclosable press-to-seal zipper strips. This feature is commonly found in empty kitchen bags and some food packaging. Some bags are sealed for tamper-evident capability, including some where the press-to-reseal feature becomes accessible only when a perforated outer seal has torn away.

Boil-in-bags are often used for sealed frozen foods, sometimes complete entrees. The bags are usually tough heat-sealed nylon or polyester to withstand the temperatures of boiling water. Some bags are porous or perforated to allow the hot water to contact the food: rice, noodles, etc. Grocery stores are the single largest supplier of single-use plastic bags.[1]

Bag-in-box packaging is often used for liquids such as box wine and institutional sizes of other liquids.

Medical uses

Plastic bags are used for many medical purposes. The non-porous quality of plastic film means that they are useful for isolating infectious body fluids; other porous bags made of nonwoven plastics can be sterilized by gas and maintain this sterility. Bags can be made under regulated sterile manufacturing conditions, so they can be used when the infection is a health risk. They are lightweight and flexible, so they can be carried by or laid next to patients without making the patient as uncomfortable as a heavy glass bottle would be. They are less expensive than re-usable options, such as glass bottles. Moderate quality evidence from a 2018 systematic review showed that plastic wraps or bags prevented hypothermia compared to routine care, especially in extremely preterm infants.[6]

Waste disposal bags

Main article: Bin bag

Flexible intermediate bulk container

Main article: Flexible intermediate bulk container

FIBC; Bulk bag

Flexible intermediate bulk containers are large industrial containers, usually used for bulk powders or flowables. They are usually constructed of woven heavy-duty plastic fibers.

Plastic shopping bags

Main article: Plastic shopping bag

Open bags with carrying handles are used in large numbers. Stores often provide them as a convenience to shoppers. Some stores charge a nominal fee for a bag. Heavy-duty reusable shopping bags are often considered environmentally better than single-use paper or plastic shopping bags. Because of environmental and litter problems, some locations are working toward a phase-out of lightweight plastic bags.


A German plastic shopping bag, freshly folded (left) and used (right)
Milk bags
Different meat products of Thailand in plastic bags

American and European patent applications relating to the production of plastic shopping bags can be found dating back to the early 1950s, but these refer to composite constructions with handles fixed to the bag in a secondary manufacturing process. The modern lightweight shopping bag is the invention of Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin.[7] In the early 1960s, Thulin developed a method of forming a simple one-piece bag by folding, welding and die-cutting a flat tube of plastic for the packaging company Celloplast of Norrköping, Sweden. Thulin's design produced a simple, strong bag with a high load-carrying capacity, and was patented worldwide by Celloplast in 1965.

From the mid-1980s onwards, plastic bags became common for carrying daily groceries from the store to vehicles and homes throughout the developed world. As plastic bags increasingly replaced paper bags, and as other plastic materials and products replaced glass, metal, stone, timber and other materials, a packaging materials war erupted, with plastic shopping bags at the center of highly publicized disputes.

In 1992, Sonoco Products Company of Hartsville, SC patented[8] the "self-opening polyethylene bag stack". The main innovation of this redesign is that the removal of a bag from the rack opens the next bag in the stack.

International usage

The number of plastic bags used and discarded worldwide has been estimated to be on the order of one trillion annually.[9] The use of plastic bags differs dramatically across countries. While the average consumer in China uses only two or three plastic bags a year, the numbers are much higher in most other countries: Denmark: four; Ireland: 20;[10] Germany: 65; Poland, Hungary, Slovakia: more than 400.[citation needed]

A large number of cities and counties have banned the use of plastic bags by grocery stores or introduced a minimum charge. In September 2014, California became the first state to pass a law banning their use. Local manufacturers of plastic bags, under the legislation, would receive financial support to assist them to make more durable multi-use bags, that would be sold by grocery stores rather than given away, as were the plastic bags. In India, the government has banned the use of plastic bags of a thickness below 50 microns.[11] In 2018, Montreal, Canada, also banned plastic bags with Ottawa expected to also put the ban into effect.[12]

Plastic bags and the environment

Compostable bag from a grocery store in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Main article: Biodegradable bag

Plastic bags are mostly made out of petroleum products and natural gas. 8% of the world's petroleum resources are used for creating plastic bags at 12 million barrels of oil a day. Half of that is used as materials to make them, and the other half for energy to make them. At this rate, it will soon run out,[citation needed] impacting many things that depend on the resource. Not to mention all the air pollution it causes.[13]

Main article: Phase-out of lightweight plastic bags

Non-compostable plastic bags can take up to 1000 years to decompose. Plastic bags are not capable of biodegradation but rather they photodegrade, a process by which the plastic bags are broken down into smaller toxic parts. In the 2000s, many stores and companies began to use different types of biodegradable bags to comply with perceived environmental benefits.[14][15]

When plastic shopping bags are not disposed of properly, they can end up in streams, which then lead them to end up in the open ocean. To mitigate marine plastic pollution from single-use shopping bags, many jurisdictions around the world have implemented bans or fees on the use of plastic bags.[16] An estimated 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean alone.[17] The way in which the bags float in open water can resemble a jellyfish, posing significant dangers to marine mammals and Leatherback sea turtles, when they are eaten by mistake and enter the animals' digestive tracts.[18] After ingestion, the plastic material can lead to premature death. Once death occurs and the animal body decomposes, the plastic reenters the environment, posing more potential problems.[17]

Huge masses of plastic waste are arriving in the oceans per annum and causing several damages which include risk of marine species, disturbance in food web ultimately effecting marine ecosystem, several microbial and alien species colonize on plastic particles enhancing their harmfulness, and plastic particles driven by winds form garbage patches in various parts of the oceans.[19]

Marine animals are not the only animals affected by improper plastic bag disposal. Sea birds, when hunting, sense for dimethyl sulfide (DMS) which is produced by algae. Plastic is a breeding ground for algae, so the sea birds mistakenly eat the bag rather than the fish that typically ingests algae. (National Geographic)[20]

Plastic bags do not do well in the environment, but several government studies have found them to be an environmentally friendly carryout bag option. According to the Recyc-Quebec, a Canadian recycling agency, "The conventional plastic bag has several environmental and economic advantages. Thin and light, its production requires little material and energy. It also avoids the production and purchase of garbage/bin liner bags since it benefits from a high reuse rate when reused for this purpose (77.7%)."[21] Government studies from Denmark[22] and the United Kingdom,[23] as well as a study from Clemson University,[24] came to similar conclusions.

Even though the bags are plastic, they typically cannot be recycled in curbside recycling bins. The material frequently causes the equipment used at recycling plants to jam, thus having to pause the recycle machinery and slow down daily operations.[25] However, plastic bags are 100% recyclable.[26] To recycle them the user needs to drop them off at a location that accepts plastic film. Usually, this means taking them back to the grocery store or another major retail store.[27]

Further information: Plastic waste, Great Pacific garbage patch, and Marine debris

Danger to children

Thin, conformable plastic bags, especially dry cleaning bags, have the potential to cause suffocation. Because of this, about 25 children in the United States suffocate each year due to plastic bags, almost nine-tenths of whom are under the age of one. This has led to voluntary warning labels on some bags posing a hazard to small children.[28]


Plastic bags are used for diverse applications:

See also


  1. ^ a b c Wagner, Travis P. (1 December 2017). "Reducing single-use plastic shopping bags in the USA". Waste Management. 70: 3–12. Bibcode:2017WaMan..70....3W. doi:10.1016/j.wasman.2017.09.003. ISSN 0956-053X. PMID 28935376.
  2. ^ "Life Cycle Inventory of Packaging Options for Shipment of Retail Mail-Order Soft Goods" (PDF). April 2004. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 December 2008. Retrieved 15 December 2008.
  3. ^ Lapidos, Juliet (27 June 2007). "Slate Explainer, 27 June 2007". Slate.com. Archived from the original on 21 July 2010. Retrieved 7 July 2010.
  4. ^ "Teresa Platt Commentary, Plastic Bags on Our Backs, May 2008". teresaplatt.com. Archived from the original on 26 April 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2010.
  5. ^ Mieszkowski, Katharine (10 August 2007). "Plastic bags are killing us". Salon.com. Retrieved 23 April 2013.
  6. ^ McCall, Emma M.; Alderdice, Fiona; Halliday, Henry L.; Vohra, Sunita; Johnston, Linda (February 2018). "Interventions to prevent hypothermia at birth in preterm and/or low birth weight infants". The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2018 (2): CD004210. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004210.pub5. ISSN 1469-493X. PMC 6491068. PMID 29431872.
  7. ^ European Plastics News: Plastic T-Shirt Carrier Bag (1965) Archived 11 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine. 26 September 2008. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
  8. ^ Beasley, M. Wayne; Fletcher, Wade D.; Wilfong, Harry B. Jr. (9 August 1994), Self-opening polyethylene bag stack and process for producing same, retrieved 10 September 2016
  9. ^ "Plastic as a Resource". Clean Up Australia. Archived from the original on 11 June 2017. Retrieved 6 June 2017.
  10. ^ Salvatore (30 November 2010). "Half Sacked: Chinese Plastic Bag Use Drops by 50 Percent". Take Part. Retrieved 6 June 2017.[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ "Centre bans plastic bags below 50 microns". The Times of India. Retrieved 22 January 2017.
  12. ^ Turnbull, Jay (31 December 2017). "What you need to know about Montreal's plastic bag ban". CBC News.
  13. ^ "Are Plastic Shopping Bags a Problem In Our Environment?".
  14. ^ Wilder, Sam (June 2006). "Festival food recycling: Sun, fun and diversion". BioCycle. 47 (6): 30.
  15. ^ "The supermarket chain Aldi Süd of Germany is now offering its customers shopping bags made of BASF's biodegradable plastic ecovio®. (Industry News and Notes, brief article)." Plastics Engineering 65.6 (June 2009): 54(2)
  16. ^ Xanthos, D., Walker, T. R. (2017). International policies to reduce plastic marine pollution from single-use plastics (plastic bags and microbeads): a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 118(1–2), 17–26.
  17. ^ a b Wagner, Jamey. "The Effects of Plastic Bags on the Environment". Health Guidance. healthguidance.org. Retrieved 19 March 2018.
  18. ^ Schuyler QA, Wilcox C, Townsend K, Hardesty BD, Marshall NJ (2014). "Mistaken identity? Visual similarities of marine debris to natural prey items of sea turtles". BMC Ecol. 14 (1): 14. Bibcode:2014BMCE...14...14S. doi:10.1186/1472-6785-14-14. PMC 4032385. PMID 24886170.
  19. ^ De Matteis, Alessandro; Turkmen Ceylan, Fethiye Burcu; Daoud, Mona; Kahuthu, Anne (1 March 2022). "A systemic approach to tackling ocean plastic debris". Environment Systems and Decisions. 42 (1): 136–145. Bibcode:2022EnvSD..42..136D. doi:10.1007/s10669-021-09832-0. ISSN 2194-5411.
  20. ^ "Animals Eat Ocean Plastic Because it Smells Like Food". 9 November 2016. Archived from the original on 10 November 2016. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  21. ^ "Environmental and Economic Highlights of the Results of the Life Cycle Assessment of Shopping Bags" (PDF). Recyc-Quebec. December 2017. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 February 2019. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
  22. ^ "Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags" (PDF). Denmark Environmental Protection Agency. February 2018.
  23. ^ "Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006" (PDF). United Kingdom Environment Agency.
  24. ^ "Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags in Common Use in the United States". Clemson University. 2014.
  25. ^ Quinn, Annalisa; Cenicola, Tony (28 February 2020). "Take One Last Look at the (Many) Plastic Bags of New York". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 February 2020.
  26. ^ "How to Recycle Plastic Bags". Earth911.com. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
  27. ^ "Find a Drop Off Location". Plastic Film Recycling. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
  28. ^ "Children Still Suffocating with Plastic Bags". US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Archived from the original on 14 July 2010. Retrieved 7 July 2010.
    "Children Still Suffocating with Plastic Bags" (PDF). Consumer Product Safety Alert. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 August 2000.

Further reading