Weren´t plastic bags supposed to be our biggest environmental enemy? Well, that was kind of yesterday’s news. After their banning and applied fees for usage across the country, turns out plastic bags may not be as bad as using paper or cloth bag alternatives actually are. Sound crazy? Here are some new developments and discoveries in our fight to save our planet against plastic.
Turns out that once plastic bags were banned and cost us something to use, sales of regular garbage bags sky rocketed. Since many of us still use plastic bags to line trash bins or pick up dog poop, the garbage bags that are now being purchased are much thicker and use more plastic than the typical flimsy plastic shopping bags. NPR reported that about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban came back in the form of these thicker garbage bags.
Then after several studies were done around the globe, it was discovered that although plastic bags are non-biodegradable, clog up waterways, and threaten wildlife when not disposed properly (contained in landfills they don’t do as much harm), in other metrics they may actually be less harmful for the environment than other bag options like paper and cloth.
Are you a proud cloth tote user that has one in every color? I hate to break it to you but a 2011 British study found that an avid shopper would have to reuse their cotton bag 131 times before it had a smaller global warming impact than a lightweight plastic bag used only once.
What about the paper alternative then? According to the same British study, you’d have to reuse a paper bag at least three times before its environmental impact equaled that of a high-density polyethylene plastic bag used only once. Top that with the fact that if the plastic bags were reused repeatedly, they were even better for the environment.
In short, paper bags are actually worse for the environment because they require the cutting down and processing of trees. This process involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. Ultimately, we are now seeing that this huge increase of paper, together with the increase in plastic trash bag usage, has meant that banning plastic shopping bags increases greenhouse gas emissions and not the other way around.
So now what are you supposed to do? Carry all your grocery items in your arms? Sadly, there’s not a clear and simple answer. But here´s what to consider when hitting the grocery store next time. The most environmentally friendly thing you can do is reuse that same bag over and over again until it practically falls apart. But most importantly watch what you are putting into your bag. It´s actually our large consumption of meat and dairy products worldwide that is responsible for one-quarter of humanity’s planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Don´t judge a bag by its cover, ehem, exterior, it´s what´s inside that counts.