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Good Question: Why Do We Use So Much Plastic?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- On Tuesday, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags like the ones used in Target and grocery stores across the country.

The plastic bags will be phased out over the next two years, but people can still use them for vegetables and meats. Paper bags will cost 10 cents while reusable bags will be free to use.

According to the plastics industry, 90 percent of grocery bags in the U.S. are still plastic.

So, why do we use so much of it?

Plastic bags were first put into checkout lines in 1977. They cost between 1 to 2 cents. Paper bags can run 4 to 5 cents.

"They're inexpensive to produce and for the amount of material it takes to make a plastic bag you can carry a lot of stuff in it," said Marc Hillmyer, a professor of polymer chemistry at the University of Minnesota.

There's been plenty of research into whether paper or plastic is better for the environment. The final outcome depends on the measures.

It takes two to four times more energy to produce paper bags compared to plastic. The production of paper bags also gives off twice as much pollution and creates more waste.

"There's a balance there, but most folks think that actually plastic bags can be a better environmental choice from an energy input and waste products standpoint," Hillmyer said.

But, what we do with these plastic bags has serious environmental consequences.

California governor Jerry Brown says Tuesday's legislation is important because "it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans recycle about half of all paper bags and only 12 percent of plastic ones.

"The fact of the matter is that plastic can wreak havoc on our natural environment," said Hillmyer. "When discarded into the environment indiscriminately, it can last literally decades and even centuries."

Tim Brownell, co-president of Eureka Recycling, says plastic bags are difficult to recycle, because the food and waste materials inside those bags take a lot of labor, and the bags can wrap around the equipment.

"They are a nuisance in the facility," Brownell said.

"It's In The Bag" is a program sponsored by the Recycling Association of Minnesota which collects the plastic bags that people bring back to retailers to recycle. The materials are collected, sorted and recycled by adults with disabilities employed at vocational centers throughout Minnesota.

As for the wave of the future, Hillmyer thinks it could lie with biodegradable plastics.

"The technology isn't quite there to compete at the price point with your traditional plastics, and that's a big challenge and that's one of the things we're working on," Hillmyer said.

The National Science Foundation has given a $20 million grant over five years to the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota to study this topic.

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