Environment

Choosing The Most Eco-Friendly Bag (Hint, Cotton Totes are NOT the Answer)

Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Almost every American has this mantra committed to memory, but does it work?

At the tail end of the Vietnam war, Americans started becoming more environmentally conscious and demanded the government to address issues of air pollution, waste, and water quality. On April 22, 1970, a whopping 20 million people rallied all across America as part of an environmental teach-in. This was the birth of Earth Day, which is now an internationally recognized movement.

This historic day led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, and eventually the passage of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976. It is believed that the “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan was born around this time.

Since then, governments around the world have been addressing (and ignoring) different environmental issues that affect the planet. In 2019, the state of New York issued a statewide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags. The ban forbids stores from providing customers with single-use plastic bags. Food takeout bags used by restaurants, bags for bulk items, newspaper bags, garment bags, and bags sold in bulk, such as trash or recycling bags, would all be exempted.

The ban also allows for counties to opt in to a 5-cent fee on paper bags, which would go towards the state’s Environmental Protection Fund as well as a separate fund to buy reusable bags for consumers.

At first look, this ban is a huge steps towards environment protection. But in reality, it does little to solve the real problems. Banning single-use plastic bags will stop the proliferation of plastic in our waterways but will only encourage consumers to use paper bags, which are problematic in their own right.

So what about cotton bags? There are so many cotton tote bags with nice graphics or sayings on them; but they’re problematic too!

When thinking about the environmental impact of bag materials, there are two main factors to consider: the manufacturing process, and the end life.

In terms of production alone, plastic shopping bags have the least environmental impact. The technical name for these bags are low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bags. LDPE bags are typically made with new plastics and are not recyclable by normal means.

Here is a table from a study by the The Danish Environmental Protection Agency. The data compares the environmental impacts (manufacturing and disposal) of LDPE bags to other bags. This table does not take into account the amount of litter that is caused by single-use items. This is only a best case scenario given that everything is recycled and disposed of properly.

Table IV compares the necessary number of reuses of other bags to provide the same environmental performance of the average LDPE carrier bag.
Key items: Recycled PET (Climate change: 8 reuses, all other factors: 84 reuses), Unbleached paper (Climate change: 0, all other factors: 43 reuses), Organic cotton (Climate change: 149, all other factors: 20,000), Conventional cotton (Climate change: 52, all other factors: 7,100).
Data compares the impact of other carrier bags to a simple LDPE bag that is reused once as a waste/garbage bag. Left numbers show reuses necessary to equal the impact of the manufacturing process on climate change. Right numbers show reuses necessary to have same cumulative environmental impact (water use, energy use, etc.) as a LDPE bag.

So before you go arming yourself with cotton totes, know that you would need to reuse that bag 7,100-20,000 times (depending on whether or not it’s organic) to balance out the effects of one plastic bag.

Paper bags need to be reused 43 times before it has the same effects of a LDPE bag. When you choose paper over plastic, are you going to reuse that bag 43 times before you recycle it?

Single-use bags have got to go, be it plastic or paper. We already know the effects of plastic on the environment, but manufacturing virgin paper causes deforestation and is more resource intensive than the production of plastic. Paper is also heavier, so the transport of paper bags requires more fuel.

Personally, I’m tired of seeing images of marine life choking in plastic. I’m glad that governments around the world are waking up to this reality and are finally making proactive changes. However, until they target the source of these problems, it won’t be enough.

But until then, try to use whatever you have at home and use them until they fall apart. Reuse LDPE and paper bags as much as you can for anything you can. If you have cotton bags already, go ahead and keep using them—just don’t buy more. If you do need to buy bags, I recommend recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bags. These are bags made from recycled plastics and will last you years.

There will always be people who fight for the right to use single-use plastic bags. Insisting that it will be reused (usually as a trash bag) really isn’t an argument for LDPE bags. “Where will I get my trash bags? Should I buy plastic to throw away?” No, you shouldn’t, but there are always other options. Having a trash bin means you don’t actually need trash bags. Garbage disposal can simply dump the contents of the bin into their truck. At the end of the day, what do your choices and actions mean for the planet? Is the ease of plastic bags more important than the ecological travesty that is occurring on our planet?

Just remember to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Reduce the amount of bags you take home, reuse the bags you have, and recycle the bags that can no longer be used.

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