What happens to plastic bags when they leave your hands?

We've discussed the problems with plastic bags at length. They are often ingested by wildlife and sea creatures, causing fatal medical issues and suffering. They pollute the oceans, including Australia's own Great Barrier Reef. They take up space in landfills, and producing them releases carbon into the atmosphere.

All of these issues might already be enough to convince you to make the switch to reusable bags, but have you ever wondered what happens to all this plastic in between your home and the ocean or landfill? Even if these bags are recycled, where exactly do they go? Here are a few pathways, as highlighted by CNN, plastic bags might take after they've served their purpose in life.

Option 1: They are recycled

In the best-case scenario, consumers are able to recycle their plastic bags. Note the phrasing there – in reality, it's not very likely that a disposable bag will be properly recycled. According to Clean Up Australia, folks living Down Under only recycle about 3 per cent of the plastic bags they use, and CNN noted that about 60 to 80 per cent of materials placed in the recycling in are actually recycled.

If a bag is fortunate enough to end up in at a recycling plant, here's what happens. First, workers sort plastics by type. If an item is determined to be non-recyclable, it heads off to a landfill site. Fortunately, plastic bags are recyclable in most parts of Australia. The plastic will then be broken down into chips, washed in a bath of chemicals, dried and melted. It is then formed into nurdles, or pieces that can be used to make products such as carpeting, floor mats, tiles and plastic chairs.

Option 2: They end up in the ocean

According to CNN, 267 or more species of birds, fish and mammals are affected by plastic debris on an ongoing basis. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and ingest them, leading to an unfortunate and unnecessary death in many cases. Whales and other large sea creatures have also been known to meet this fate.

Another way plastics make their way into the oceans is in the form of tiny particles. Unfortunately, even plastics that have been out in the elements for many years don't simply biodegrade, they are just broken down into smaller bits. These little pieces of trash swirl around the ocean in areas that have been termed 'garbage patches'. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the prime example, which stretches between Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States. The Indian Ocean Garbage Patch, which sits about halfway between Australia and Africa, was the most recently discovered patch. 

"This is the first time the whole world is watching, and so it's a good time for people to understand that our oceans are garbage dumps," scientist Kathleen Dohan of Earth and Space Research told National Geographic. "This is a problem in every ocean basin."

Option 3: They go into a landfill

In yet another not-so-great option, plastic waste ends up in landfills. The fact that these materials are recyclable makes this concept even more frustrating. However, landfills are no stranger to plastic – these mounds are lined with a mixture of clay and plastic to prevent garbage from escaping into the earth, according to CNN.

As you can see, when it comes to plastic bags, there really aren't many good options. Investing in reusable bags and backpacks can help keep the oceans and landfills free from unnecessary waste and can give wildlife a fighting chance of survival.