What are plastic bags made out of?

“Plastic” refers to different materials made from carbon (which is usually drawn from petroleum), used in anything from milk jugs to vinyl jackets. Household products, including shopping bags, are typically printed with a number to make sorting and recycling easier. Bags are usually made out of number two (colorless high-density polyethylene) or number four (low-density polyethylene).

Where do they all go?

Rather than decomposing, plastic disintegrates into pieces and eventually into a fine “dust” that can poison wildlife and even move up the food chain. Bags also end up in waterways and, eventually, the ocean, choking and killing wildlife along the way. An estimated 80 percent of the giant swirling soup of trash known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of plastic particles, mostly from shopping bags.

What’s better—paper or plastic bags?

Environmentalists say making a single plastic bag takes less energy and consumes fewer resources than making a single paper bag. On the other hand, each paper bag holds a lot more than a plastic bag, and paper bags are biodegradable and much easier to recycle. The greenest solution is to ditch all single-use disposable bags in favor of reusable alternatives.

Aren’t plastic bags cheaper than paper?

It’s true that retailers, and subsequently shoppers, spend more for paper than plastic bags—about ten cents apiece versus a penny, according to the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. But the costs of plastic ones—including litter cleanup, ecological damage, and landfill space—are borne by taxpayers long term.

Can’t plastic bags be recycled?

Just about everything can be recycled, but recycling becomes less likely as the cost of doing it goes up. Demand for bags is low because they offer a low payoff by volume, and contamination—scraps of food, paper, and other trash—corrupts the recycling process, making it more costly for processors.

What should I do with the plastic bags I already have?

Reuse them, then try to recycle them. Jewel-Osco and Dominick’s stores generally have recycling bins for them. Jewel says it sells bales of used bags to Trex, a company that turns them into boards for decks, benches, and fences.

Can’t I put the bags in the bin I got for the city’s new blue-bin program?

No. Nor can you put them in blue bags or drop them off at city recycling centers. None of the city’s recyclers does anything with plastic shopping bags except send them to landfills.

So wait—does the city recycle any plastic stuff? My water bottles and milk jugs?

It does—as long as it’s made out of plastic types 1 through 5 or 7.

What about bags made out of cornstarch or other biodegradable materials?

Disposable bags made out of cornstarch, sugarcane, or other plant products may not be as sturdy, cost more to manufacture, and require greenhouse emissions to produce. And why spend energy and resources creating something that will simply be thrown away after one use?

Why not build a resuable plastic bag—something bigger, thicker, with handles?

If consumers are going to pay for higher-quality, reusable bags, why not make them out of a material that causes less harm to produce and will last longer? That said, some stores sell reusable bags made out of recycled plastic, and many fit into your pocket to make carrying them around easier.

Reusing bags saves stores money. Why don’t they make it worth our while to bring our own bags?

Some do. Whole Foods takes five or ten cents (depending on the store) off the bill for each bag you bring and use. Aldi doesn’t give out any free bags—it charges a nickel for a paper bag and a dime for a heavy plastic one.

How am I supposed to remember to bring a bag every time I leave the house?

Keep bags in your car or next to your bike or at work—so you’ll have one handy anytime you might make a purchase.

Other places have banned plastic bags. Why don’t we?

Neither the mayor nor local businesses appear to want a ban. But that’s really a question for your alderman.

Who is my alderman, and how can I reach him or her?

Go to the City Council page on the city clerk’s Web site (http://www.chicityclerk.com/citycouncil/alderman/find.html) and click on the map. Your alderman’s name and contact information will appear. Or you can always call the city’s info line at 311. —Mick Dumke

FAQ: What you need to know about plastic bags now