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What is a plastic bag?
The most obvious and straightforward answer to this question is a very simple one - a plastic bag is a bag made out of plastic. Of course you knew that already and, whilst factually correct, this answer doesn't fully go into any detail about what makes a plastic bag, apart from plastic. The more helpful answer is actually a little more complicated than some people might think.
Plastic bags are regularly referred to as polythene bags, or polybags for short. This is because plastic bags they are traditionally made of polythene, although technically the material that they are usually made from is polyethylene, which is usually known as polythene. So calling a plastic bag a polythene bag, a polybag or a polyethylene bag are all correct terms.
Plastic bags come in all shapes and sizes and cover a multitude of uses, from the trusty old carrier bag that helps millions of people take their shopping home to the specialist waste sacks required by hospitals or people dealing with hazardous waste.
Not to mention all of the bags in between!
Packing bags, waste sacks, bubble bags, anti-static bags, minigrip bags, mailing Bags, postal sacks, waste sacks, black sacks, dustbin bags, bin liners, zip seal bags, recycling bags, biodegradable bags, specialist bags, high tensile strength bags and PolyMax extra strong bags - there’s a lot of polythene bags out there!
How are plastic bags made?
Plastic bags are made from polyethylene, with three particular types of polythene - each of varying densities - widely used for manufacturing bags: low-density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE).
The exact process of making a plastic bag will vary according to the type of plastic bag in question, the density of the polyethylene and the characteristics that the particular bag will require.
However, there are a few common factors used across the manufacturing of each type of bag. Polythene bags are widely created using a method called ‘blown film extrusion’, also known as the ‘tubular film process’.
The ethylene polymer resin used to create the bags comes in the form of pellets. These pellets are placed into a hopper and melted before being extruded to form a thin tube by forcing cool air into the tube, usually vertically from the bottom of the tube.
Once the tube reaches the correct size and the plastic has reached far enough up the cooling tower and cooled properly, it is taken away and flattened.
At this stage the tube can either be split into two halves, with each side used as a flat sheet of film, or the two sides of the tube can be sealed across the width of the film, before being cut and/or perforated to make plastic bags.
Types of plastic bag
If you say ‘plastic bag’ most people think of a standard carrier bag. However, there are many different types of plastic bag. Here are just a few:
Clear plastic bag - standard plastic bag made of clear or opaque polythene
Coloured plastic bag - standard plastic bag made of coloured polythene
Plain plastic bag - standard plastic bag (clear or coloured) containing no markings
Printed plastic bag - plastic bag printed with a name, logo, design etc.
Carrier bags - the classic traditional shopping bag, available with vest, cut, loop, clip close or grip seal handle styles
Gusseted bags - plastic bags with expandable sides (gusset) and a fitted bottom
Self seal bags - simple plastic seal clicks shut and pulls open to use time and time again (also known as grip seal bags or mini grip bags)
Zip lock bags - plastic bags with a zip seal used to open or close the bag
Drawstring bags - plastic bag with a drawstring at the top that fastens to close the bag
Merchandise bags - premium plastic bags printed with a company logo, slogan or design. Ideal for presentation.
Layflat tubing - cut this poly tubing to size and heat seal for your own made-to-measure bags. Perfect for packaging awkwardly shaped or difficult-to-wrap items.
Bags on roll - a roll of bags, wrapped around a central core, each attached to the next by perforation. Easily detaches with a simple tug
Where can I buy plastic bags?
Manufacturers and suppliers of plastic bags include:
Polybags Bulk Sales
Buy Plastic Bags
Buy Polythene Bags
Discount Plastic Bags
Cheap Plastic Bags
Research & Resources
For loads more detailed information about plastic bags, from the start of the production process right through to recycling, including details of the different types of plastic bags available, please visit:
Recycling and reusing plastic bags
A 2005 study by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), cited by the Environment Agency in their 2011 report ‘Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags’, reported on how traditional lightweight ‘single use’ carrier bags were used after their initial intended use.
Their survey found that 89% of respondents reused at least some carrier bags. 59% of people said they reused all carrier bags, while 16% reused most of them, 7% reused around half and 7% reused some. Overall, it was estimated that 76% of carrier bags were reused.
The report also included details of how people reuse their carrier bags. The results can be found in the table below.
The reuse of lightweight carrier bags (WRAP 2005 survey)
Source: Environment Agency - Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags