Life Cycle and Carbon Footprint of Plastic Bags

Life Cycle or Carbon Footprint of Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are regarded as one of the most common items in daily life in the modern society. These products continue to be common in everyday life despite emerging concerns across many cities worldwide concerning their probable environmental impact. These concerns have increased in the recent past because of the problem of global climate change. Actually, the concerns have been fueled by increased interest in calculating the climate change effects of varying consumer products in recent years. Despite accounting for a small portion of consumer products, plastic or shopping bags have been identified as sources of numerous environmental problems throughout the world. Some of the major environmental problems emerging from the use of plastic bags include litter, flooding, and resource depletion. Nonetheless, the impact of plastic bags on global climate change can be understood through examining their life cycle or carbon footprint. This is followed by developing possible areas of impact reduction to lessen the environmental problems brought by plastic bags.

Use of Plastic Bags

As previously mentioned, plastic bags are considered as one of the most common items in daily life though they account for a small volume of consumer products. These products are made from non-renewable resources whose major ingredients are natural gas and petroleum. High density and low density polyethylene and linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) are the most commonly used materials to manufacture plastic bags (Muthu et al., 2012, p.26). Plastic bags are commonly used by supermarkets as shopping bags and are manufactured from LLDPE to obtain the desired thickness and glossy appearance. These products are usually slender and light, which makes them easy to carry and preferred for shopping. Their use for shopping is also fueled by the fact that they are easy to manufacture.

The use of plastic bags to carry groceries and other consumer goods can be traced back to the 1970s. Since their introduction during this period, they have developed to become popular among consumers and retailers since they are cheap, strong, lightweight, and functional. Retailers and consumers consider plastic bags as hygienic means for carrying consumer goods like food and groceries. Actually, it is projected that approximately 500 billion plastic bags are produced and used by retailers and consumers annually. Consequently, disposed plastic bags are prevalent including in remote areas in the world such as the Pacific Ocean. The prevalence of disposed plastic bags is attributable to the fact that they are discarded as wastes usually after a single use.

Since plastic bags are discarded as wastes usually after a single use, they pose serious environmental pollutions as well as health problems that affect humans and animals (Adane & Muleta, 2011, p.234). The accumulation of these products generates considerable environmental pollution and problems that is manifested in several ways and forms. The environmental impact of these products is more severe in economically disadvantaged regions such as third world countries. Some of the major ways through which the environmental effects of plastic bag wastes are manifested include deterioration of an environment’s natural beauty, death of domestic and wild animals, blockage of sewerage systems, increased foul smells, and emergence and prevalence of diseases since they create favorable habitats for insects like mosquitoes and bacteria. In cases where these wastes gain access to agricultural fields, they generate decreased percolation of water and decreased percolation of proper aeration in soil, which lessens the productivity of these fields. The use of plastic bags may also produce some carcinogenic agents as a result of the chemical reactions in their manufacturing processes. According to the findings of recent surveys, the reuse of these products results in cross contamination of foods through microorganisms (Adane & Muleta, 2011, p.235).

Life-cycle Assessment of Plastic Bags

A life-cycle assessment is an analytical tool used by researchers to understand the environmental impact of a product. This assessment is usually carried out from the acquisition of the product’s raw materials to its final disposal as waste. This assessment will be helpful in examining the environmental impact of plastic bags since it is an iterative procedure that examines environmental burdens relating to a product, process or activity. The tool achieves this through identifying and weighing energy and materials utilized and released to the environment as well as identifying and assessing opportunities to implement environmental improvements. The life cycle assessment of plastic bags relative to its environmental impacts and the problem of global climate change includes

Acquisition of Raw Materials

During the acquisition of raw materials for production of these products, plastic bags consume considerably less energy in comparison to paper bags. The material consumption of plastic bags is 3.12 kilograms with 6.08 kilograms of emissions of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere (Muthu et al., 2012, p.28). As previously mentioned, the raw materials utilized in the manufacture of plastic bags include high density and low density polyethylene and linear low-density polyethylene. Therefore, the acquisition of raw materials for production of plastic bags generates minimal environmental impacts since these materials have relatively minimal effects on the environment.

Production Processes

The production processes of plastic bags include crude oil extraction and the production of natural gas. The estimated energy requirements in these production processes include resource inputs of natural gas, heavy fuel oil, coal, and diesel. These energy requirements emanate from the fact that plastic bags are manufactured through the use of non-renewable energy resources, particularly petroleum and natural gas. The energy requirements from different resource inputs are generated from exploration, injection, and drilling processes. While the only significant contribution to acidification for production of plastic bags is from refinery and manufacturing, the contribution is relatively lower. The non-renewable energy resources utilized in production of these bags hardly generates any significant environmental impacts. Therefore, the life cycle impact of production of plastic bags in the manufacturing stages and processes are all moderate (Khoo, Tan & Chng, 2010, p.291). In addition, the manufacturing processes of plastic bags are characterized by fewer environmental impacts because of low consumption of non-renewable energy, low emissions of greenhouse gases, and restricted photochemical oxidant creation (Muthu et al., 2012, p.27).

Use and Disposal

The disposal of plastic bags is largely influenced by consumer behavior and governmental policies, which play an important role in this process. Generally, the use and disposal stage of these products comprises three major aspects i.e. disposal to landfill, reuse and recycle. The reuse of a plastic bag until it is discarded or recycled is entirely in the hands of consumers. Disposal of these products, which is most common because they are considered suitable for a single use, is detrimental to the environment with regards to eco-impact. The increased disposal of plastic bags is not only harmful to landfills and agricultural lands but also poses a significant threat to aquatic life (Jalil, Mian & Rahman, 2013, p.2).

Even though the environmental impacts of plastic bags emanate from factors that are not linked to the bags themselves in terms of materials and production processes, their disposal prevent environmental and agricultural growth. This damage is brought by the fact that plastic bags do not decompose with soil and remain in agricultural lands for a long period of time. In essence, plastic bags are either non-biodegradable or decompose very slowly. As they remain in agricultural lands for a long period of time, they end up blocking and hindering the progress of agricultural plants’ growth. For instance, while these products are thin, crops fail to pierce through them in order to obtain natural nutrients around the soil. In some cases, these products become fixed to tree and plant branches as they can be easily blown away by air resulting in hindrances to the growth of those plants and trees. Actually, the environmental problems brought by disposal of plastic bags with regards to agriculture include decreased soil fertility, reduction in nitrogen fixation, variance in flora and fauna on soil, significant loss of natural nutrients in the soil, and decrease in crop harvest (Jalil, Mian & Rahman, 2013, p.5). The disposal of these products is also linked to reduced productivity of agricultural lands or fields because of reduced percolation of water and decrease in proper aeration in soil.

Apart from their environmental impacts on agricultural lands, the disposal of plastic bags contributes to environmental pollution and increased health risks. The increased health risks are brought by incidents like blockage of sewerage systems, which implies that people in such areas are exposed to bacteria and other factors that result in increased risk of contacting diseases. Moreover, the carcinogenic agents released during chemical reactions in plastic materials could create more health risks. The health risks also emerge from creation of foul smells and development of favorable habitats for harmful insects like mosquitoes due to disposal of plastic bags to landfills. In addition, disposal of plastic bags causes deterioration of an environment’s natural beauty because of environmental pollution. Plastic bags have the capability to leach chemical components and toxins into landfills and water resources, which could become a source of serious health hazards (Adane & Muleta, 2011, p.238). Some of the measures used in disposing these bags such as burning or burying them releases toxic organic compounds, which become the source of serious health hazards like respiratory health problems.

As evident in this assessment, the environmental impacts of plastic bags depends less on their manufacturing but more on their use and disposal. This finding affirms the general belief that many products’ global-warming impact depends less on how they’re made than on how they’re used. For instance, a six-pack of beer’s carbon footprint is about seven pounds. The real surprise is where the bulk of that number comes from: the refrigeration of the beer at stores. Therefore, the easiest means for reducing carbon emissions may be to purchase less of a product or use it in a less convenient manner.

Carbon Footprint of Plastic Bags

Since the environmental effects of plastic bags in relation to global climate change are largely attributed to the use and disposal of these products, the carbon footprint of plastic bags are significantly evident in their use and disposal. Once plastic bags are used (mostly after a single use) they quickly become wastes and are disposed indiscriminately. While these products account for a small portion of consumer goods, they form a big volume of environmental wastes and eventually release toxic organic compounds into the environment. Plastic bags have been associated with huge environmental impacts due to their use and disposal but there is uncertainty and variance regarding their carbon footprints.

The carbon footprints of products – the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that get coughed into the air when goods are made, shipped and stored, and then used by consumers. In the past few years, there has been increased interest and attention in calculating the impact of several consumer products on climate change, which has contributed to the development of different measures for evaluating the footprints of these products. The calculation of these carbon footprints has ranged from photovoltaic cells to a number of food items and non-food items such as plastic bags.

According to the findings of several life cycle assessments, plastic bags are superior to paper bags and are associated with major greenhouse gases emissions (Mattila et al., 2011, p.218). These products do not have the potential for significant greenhouse gases reduction because of their disposal to landfills, composting, and incineration. The disposal of plastic bags is associated with increased carbon sequestration of compost additions. This is mainly because these products are indiscriminately thrown everywhere and are non-biodegradable or decompose very slowly. As a result of their slow or no decomposition, plastic bags end up causing carbon confiscation and generate significant environmental impacts that relatively contribute to global climate change. Moreover, the disposal of these products plays a certain role in the problem of global climate change because of inability to generate significant reduction of greenhouse gases and acts as a contributor to emissions of these gases in some cases.

In a study on the uncertainty and sensitivity in carbon footprint of several shopping bags including plastic bags, Mattila et al. (2011) found that nearly 60% of the material found in these products was fossil-based additives (p.220). The study indicated that a corresponding portion of the carbon dioxide emitted during the composting process of plastic bags and successive degradation of compost in soil was emissions of fossil. These findings demonstrate the carbon footprint of plastic bags in relation to global climate change, particularly in relation to fossil additives and emission. Global climate change is largely caused by emission of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere through burning of coal and fossil fuels. Since some shopping bags contain fossil-based additives and subsequent fossil emission, they play a role in global warming.

The carbon footprint of plastic bags with regards to climate change across the globe is relatively linked to the large amounts of energy utilized to obtain oil for raw materials and the use of coal-fired power plants in the process of manufacturing the actual bags. The acquisition of oil for raw materials of plastic bags contributes to increased emissions of greenhouse gases since this process entails the use of fuel-burning heavy machinery. The machinery used in burning fuel emits these gases since plastic bags are manufactured using non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuel. Moreover, the use of coal-fired power plants in the actual manufacture of these products also contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions since coal is one of the major contributors of climate change.

The energy requirement for manufacturing one high density polyethylene plastic bag is 0.48 megajoules, which implies that a car driving for a kilometer is the equivalent of production of 8.7 plastic bags. Therefore, a country with more shoppers is characterized by more carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global climate change, though the emissions from the production of plastic bags are much lesser as compared to those of other industrial activities like driving a car.

The production of two plastic bags generates 1.1 kilograms of atmospheric pollution that in turn contributes to acid rain and smog. In regions that largely depend on coal, acid rain poses a serious threat to natural and man-made environments, especially in relation to global warming. In addition, manufacturing two plastic bags also generate 0.1 grams of waterborne waste, which has the potential of interfering with associated ecosystems (Ellis et al., 2005, p.6).

After the manufacturing or production of plastic bags, they are shipped throughout the world and transported in different areas. The containers and mode of transportation used for moving plastic bags use fuel, particularly coal and fossil fuel, which generate high levels of environmental pollutants. These environmental problems continue to escalate as manufacturers of the plastic bags attempt to accommodate the increased demand for the products throughout the world. As increased shipment and transportation is carried out to help meet the worldwide demand for plastic bags, more emissions of carbon dioxide are experienced resulting in the problem of climate change.

The carbon footprint of plastic bags is the toxic emissions generated during extraction of raw materials to manufacture these products, their actual manufacturing processes, and transportation. Furthermore, the carbon and ecological footprint of plastic bags, which are commonly used in grocery stores, grows with every increasing statistic. Nonetheless, carbon footprints of plastic bags are very small as compared to other industrial activities like 1 kilometer of driving i.e. 180 grams of carbon dioxide emissions per kilometer.

Possible Areas of Impact Reduction

As evident in the life cycle assessment/carbon footprint, the use of plastic bags has some environmental impacts in relation to climate change. Therefore, it is increasingly important to develop possible areas of reducing the environmental impacts of these products. These possible areas should focus on the major areas of production and use of plastic bags. The possible areas for impact reduction of plastic bags include

Reducing Energy Requirements

While the extraction of raw materials and actual manufacturing of plastic bags is associated with minimal environmental impacts, reducing energy requirement in these processes is one of the potential areas for lessening the overall environmental effect of plastic bags. This is vital because some of the existing environmental impacts of plastic bags can be attributed to energy requirements and direct emissions from extraction of gas and oil in these two processes. According to Khoo, Tan & Chng (2010), reducing the energy utilized in the life cycle production of plastic bags is one of the major concerns (p.292).

The reduction of energy requirements implies examining alternative sources of energy, particularly renewable energy, that can be used in extraction and production processes. As previously discussed, the production of plastic bags primarily involves the use on non-renewable energy, which is one of the major factors generating the considerable environmental impacts of these products. The incorporation and increased use of renewable energy would not only lessen the energy requirements of conventional energy sources but help in reducing the environmental impact of plastic bags as their use and disposal increases.

Comprehensive Informational Campaign about Use and Disposal

In the different stages of the life cycle of plastic bags, the disposal stage is the greater contributor of its eco-impact and carbon footprint. Therefore, the use and disposal of plastic bags should receive considerable attention with regards to being a potential area for significant impact reduction. This phase is characterized by two major aspects i.e. consumer behavior and governmental policies, which implies that impact reduction strategies should focus on these two dimensions of the use and disposal of these products.

With regards to consumer behavior, a comprehensive informational campaign that is akin to immunization campaigns should be implemented (Moharam & Al Maqtari, 2014, p.67). This campaign should be carried out in mass media and incorporate sensitization regarding the negative environmental impacts of handling plastic bags. The campaign will help in impact reduction through shaping consumer behavior by creating continued awareness of the environmental effects of plastic bags. The comprehensive informational campaign should focus on mobilizing the public and other stakeholders against the indiscriminate use and disposal of plastic bags with the objective of lessening the excessive accumulation of these wastes in the environment (Adane & Muleta, 2011, p.245).

In relation to governmental policies, there is need for enactment and enforcement of legislation that promote effective use and disposal of plastic bag wastes. In some cases, the lack of strict governmental policies has acted as a major factor resulting in indiscriminate use and disposal of these wastes and the subsequent environmental effects. Governments across the globe should enact and enforce policies that will help govern consumer behavior in relation to handling plastic bag wastes. Apart from enacting and enforcing legislation, governments should work with other stakeholders across cities to encourage effective use of these products. These collaborative initiatives should also include encouraging the public to use environment-friendly alternatives to plastic bags such as cloth bags.

In conclusion, plastic bags have become common part of everyday life as reflected in their increased use in grocery stores and supermarkets across the world. Their widespread use is attributable to the fact that they are cheap, convenient, and provide hygienic means for carry consumer goods. However, a life cycle assessment/carbon footprint of these products shows that they generate considerable environmental impacts in relation to climate. The possible areas of impact reduction include reducing energy needs and comprehensive informational campaign.


Adane, L. & Muleta, D. (2011, August). Survey on the Usage of Plastic Bags, Their Disposal, and Adverse Impacts on Environment: A Case Study in Jimma City, Southwestern Ethiopia. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Sciences, 3(8), 234-248.

Ellis et al. (2005, December 22). Plastic Grocery Bags: The Ecological Footprint. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from

Jalil, A., Mian, N. & Rahman, M.K. (2013). Using Plastic Bags and Its Damaging Impact on Environment and Agriculture: An Alternative Proposal. International Journal of Learning and Development, 3(4), 1-14.

Khoo, H.H., Tan, R.B.H., Chng, K.W.L. (2010, February 13). Environmental Impacts of Conventional Plastic and Bio-based Carrier Bags. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 15, 284-293.

Mattila et al. (2011). Uncertainty and Sensitivity in the Carbon Footprint of Shopping Bags. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 15(2), 217-227.

Moharam, R. & Al Maqtari, M.A. (2014, December). The Impact of Plastic Bags on the Environment: A Field Survey of the City of Sana’a and The Surrounding Areas, Yemen. International Journal of Engineering Research and Reviews, 2(4), 61-69.

Muthu et al. (2012). Eco-Impact of Plastic and Paper Shopping Bags. Journal of Engineered Fibers and Fabrics, 7(1), 26-37.

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