Some celebrity bags: Plastic? Paper? Cloth? Decisions, decisions.
Half in the plastic shopping bag, that is. And I’ll probably stay that way for a while.
First of all, let me say that I hate plastic bags with a passion. Discarded plastic bags are a blight on the urban and rural landscape, a menace to the environment and most living creatures, and they’re often too flimsy to do their primary job properly in the first place.
But I also love plastic bags. I don’t have to lug reusable bags all over town if the grocery store is my last stop in a busy schedule. If I’m delivering something (anything — a book, a sweater, a bottle of wine, a cake), I just pop it in an anonymous plastic bag and leave the bag behind (for the recipient to deal with). I store everything from other plastic bags to old notebooks to nuts and bolts in plastic bags at home. And I would be lost without plastic bags for garbage pail liners and animal waste disposal.
(I know, I know, I could pay extra money for biodegradable plastic bags specifically designed to catch garbage, cat litter or dog doo — but why, then, aren’t the grocery store’s plastic bags biodegradable? And there’s a serious downside to biodegradable plastics — they produce carbon dioxide, methane and/or other greenhouse gases when they decompose.)
So there’s a place for disposable plastic bags in my universe. That place just isn’t blowing down a sidewalk or waving madly from a tree branch or clogging a storm drain.
Now I’m not preaching here (except the part about not letting plastic bags blow around the countryside like toxic dandruff or clog the oceans). I’m just explaining my starting point as I try to figure out the facts — which seem to be pushing me in a particular, surprising direction.
The surprising part is that there seem to be a couple of bag villains bigger than plastic — and I naively used to think they were the good guys.
We’re so used to being hit over the head with the propaganda that all plastic bags are bad that it’s hard to accept that the most environment-friendly alternative to a plastic bag might be … a plastic bag.
And this spin isn’t coming from the Save The Plastic Bag Coalition (yes, there really is such an organization in California).
Jurisdictions around the world from San Francisco to Rwanda to Bangladesh have already banned one-time-use plastic bags. Italy last year banned non-biodegradable single-use plastic bags. Other jurisdictions from Ireland to Toronto (despite Mayor Rob Ford’s antipathy) try to reduce their use by imposing a charge or tax on each disposable bag.
The European Union, despite its preoccupation with keeping member states solvent, is currently considering a total ban on the bags as it tries to cut back on the 100 billion plastic bags Europeans go through every year. (That’s nothing compared to the 120-billion-plus plastic bags used annually by Americans and Canadians — and Europe’s population is almost 50% bigger than the United States and Canada combined).
As it moves ponderously forward in its decision-making process, the European Union has amassed a lot of facts and figures for consideration. And Britain’s Environment Agency last year published a “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags.”
Thankfully we have the BBC to sort out all that confusing data for us. Here’s the BBC’s simple graphic to explain the comparison.
In other words, the production of a paper bag cause three times as much greenhouse gas emission as the production of a plastic bag. A heavy-duty, reusable plastic “bag for life” causes four times as much greenhouse gas in its production. And the production of A REUSABLE COTTON SHOPPING BAG SPEWS 131 TIMES AS MUCH GREENHOUSE GAS INTO THE ATMOSPHERE as the production of a single-use plastic bag.
So, although a reusable cotton or canvas carryall seems BY FAR the best choice for an ecologically conscious shopper, you would have to use that bag 132 times before you outweighed the damage to the ozone layer caused by the use of plastic bags. How many people are really, truly going to use that ratty old cotton bag after, say, the 90th or 100th time?
What’s a carbon footprint?
According to the UK’s Carbon Trust, a non-profit organization created by the British government to help that country reduce its carbon emissions,
“A carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organization, event or product. The carbon footprint considers all six of the Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gases: Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).”
Different studies produce different figures. A report produced for Los Angeles County when it banned plastic bags last year concluded a cloth bag would have to be used 104 times before its greater environmental impact (compared to a plastic bag) was neutralized. The difference seems to be that one study was looking at just carbon footprinting and the other was considering the full spectrum of environmental impact. Given the after-effect of plastic-bag garbage, I’ve got to believe the overall environmental impact is understated.
But using just the UK Environment Agency figures, here’s an example:
If I have six cloth shopping bags and I use two of them at a time to go shopping three times a week, it would take me MORE THAN 7-1/2 YEARS to be on the carbon-footprint upside of disposable plastics bags.
As for paper bags, who re-uses a paper bag even once, let alone two times? What am I going to re-use a paper bag for, apart from storing mushrooms or as fire-starter?
I used to feel quite virtuous when I walked out of the LCBO carrying my paper bag(s) of booze. Not anymore.
The difference becomes even more pronounced when the “one-use” plastic bag is reused. Here’s the BBC’s graphic comparison:
Sooooo, by far the best alternative to a plastic bag (in my books, anyway) is a plastic bag — a heavy-duty, reusable plastic bag with handles (the kind the supermarkets sell for $1 or $2), the so-called “bag for life.”
Even if you don’t keep it hanging around for life, you’re way ahead of the carbon footprint game within a few weeks and every usage after that is a bonus.
So I’ll keep the cloth bags I have and keep using them until they rot or rip, but I’ll never buy another. And I’m going to stop having my LCBO purchases brown-paper-bagged. The booze goes in my backpack now and the groceries go in a “bag for life” (if I have one with me).
And I’ll still get some one-use plastic bags on the occasional shopping expedition because I still need ‘em.
As for anyone carrying around a designer canvas shopping bag like the one below (by Anya Hindmarsh), stop it. You may not be a plastic bag but you are being a complete hypocrite.