Plastic Grocery Bags Might Not Be So Bad After All

They call them single use plastic bags, but be honest, how many people do you know who only use them once? I can’t count the number of people us included who have a big bag collection. So long as they don’t have holes in the bottom or broken handles, we’ll reuse pretty much every bag that comes through the door for something or other. Storing things, garbage since they’re easier to get down our apartment’s chute than bigger, more conventional trash bags, carrying stuff from one place to another, picking up dog poop in a pinch, and on and on and on. Maybe they aren’t the greatest thing for the environment since they don’t decompose, but they’re useful, they’re convenient, and as it turns out, they might actually be better than basically every option that’s supposed to be replacing them.

This is something I’ve often wondered about when the subject of banning plastic grocery bags comes up, so I’m glad there are now studies to tell me that my thought that the impact of the production and eventual disposal of the alternatives might be as hard or harder on the planet in some ways isn’t completely out of line.

Before California banned plastic shopping bags statewide in late 2016, a wave of 139 California cities and counties implemented the policy themselves. Taylor and colleagues compared bag use in cities with bans with those without them. For six months, they spent weekends in grocery stores tallying the types of bags people carried out (she admits these weren’t her wildest weekends). She also analyzed these stores’ sales data.
Taylor found these bag bans did what they were supposed to: People in the cities with the bans used fewer plastic bags, which led to about 40 million fewer pounds of plastic trash per year. But people who used to reuse their shopping bags for other purposes, like picking up dog poop or lining trash bins, still needed bags. “What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned,” she says. This was particularly the case for small, 4-gallon bags, which saw a 120 percent increase in sales after bans went into effect.

Trash bags are thick and use more plastic than typical shopping bags. “So about 30 percent of the plastic that was eliminated by the ban comes back in the form of thicker garbage bags,” Taylor says. On top of that, cities that banned plastic bags saw a surge in the use of paper bags, which she estimates resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year.

A bunch of studies find that paper bags are actually worse for the environment. They require cutting down and processing trees, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. While paper is biodegradable and avoids some of the problems of plastic, Taylor says, the huge increase of paper, together with the uptick in plastic trash bags, means banning plastic shopping bags increases greenhouse gas emissions. That said, these bans do reduce nonbiodegradable litter.

I want to stop here and mention something else about paper bags. If you’re going to give them out at a store, for the love of god please make sure they have handles on them. Any bag that doesn’t have handles is of no use to me. I need my hands for things like using my cane and opening doors, and I can’t do that if they’re full of your stupid, handleless bag. Give me some good handles so I can slide that bad boy up my arm and get on with my day.

Ok, back to the matter at hand.

While the cloth bags do at least have handles on them, they’re no ecological picnic either, according to research.

A 2011 study by the U.K. government found a person would have to reuse a cotton tote bag 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once. The Danish government recently did a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond simply greenhouse gas emissions, including water use, damage to ecosystems and air pollution. These factors make cloth bags even worse. They estimate you would have to use an organic cotton bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag to make using it better for the environment.

Ironically, it seems that the best replacement for the plastic bag is in fact a plastic bag. A reusable one mind you, but still.

According to the Danish study, the best reusable ones are made from polyester or plastics like polypropylene. Those still have to be used dozens and dozens of times to be greener than plastic grocery bags, which have the smallest carbon footprint for a single use.

The best thing we can do, according to this study’s author, is not ban the single use bags at all, but rather charge a fee for them. There are stores around here that already do that, and I’m fine with it. If I could make one suggestion though, it would be that the stores don’t get to keep the profits from those fees. Instead, the money should be donated to environmental causes such as organizations that do neighbourhood cleanups, or perhaps put toward research that could one day produce something that is actually better than the poor plastic bag.

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