The debate about global warming has gotten just about as hot as the summer here that won’t end. Even climate-change skeptics are recycling and cutting down on wasteful habits. But a new report casts some doubt on just how environmentally friendly our eco-habits really are, and at the center of this argument is the simple plastic grocery bag.
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Plastic grocery bags are incredibly convenient. They’re compact, and light. They’re easy to produce and can be recycled. Yet they require a lot of resources to produce, and most don’t recycle them. Some stores have banned their use completely, or they charge customers who insist on using plastic bags a per-bag fee–but is that really the answer?
Consider the other options. The plastic replaced paper bags. Now, the emphasis has shifted to reusable tote-bags. That reusable tote bag has a carbon footprint, too. For every one tote bag, you can make 131 of the plastic bags.
The UK’s Environment Agency conducted a study that examined seven options. They traced back the old paper bag, and plastic bags, bags made of cotton, starch, polyester, polymers, and polyethylene.
Polyethylene bags are increasingly common, so they tested four different weights.
“The impact was considerably larger in categories such as acidification and aquatic & terrestrial ecotoxicity due to the energy used to produce cotton yarn and the fertilizers used during the growth of the cotton,” the study found.
The standard HDPE polymer bag, the one we all have used at one point or another, was easier on the environment–at least during production.
The study concluded that the cotton bag’s carbon footprint was a staggering 598.6 lbs of CO2. The standard HDPE bag was well below that at 3.48 lbs (1.6 kg).
Production of standard plastic bags created just 1/4 the of waste and used half as much electricity.
Critics of the study say that production is only half of the equation, and may be much less than half of the story. A good reusable bag can be reused. Plastic bags are difficult to recycle, so the vast majority end up in landfills. Claiming to understand environmental impact without factoring in the disposal costs seems incomplete at best.
The best option, the study concludes, may be to reuse the standard plastic bags until they fall apart, then recycle them appropriately.
Want more infotainment on how bags are made? Check out the video below.