I’m Half In The Bag Right Now

- March 20th, 2012

celebrity-shopping

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.

plasticbag

(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.

brown-paper-bags

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.

 

Really.

 

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.

One-use-graphic

 

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.

canvas-grocery-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?

LCBObags

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:

 

3-reuse-graphic

 

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.”

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).

sobeysbagforlife

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.

canvas-bag

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10 comments

  1. Chris D. says:

    The bags I have used for over 15 years now are made out of recycled yarn. Dad would unpick old knitted sweaters and blankets to make big balls of yarn. Mum would make the bags up on her knitting machine and line them with old sheets and pillowcases. For the handles, she used strips of material from Dad’s old slacks.
    They are very strong and machine washable.
    Labour intensive yes, but well worth the effort if you have the time and equipment. Mum made many of these for family and friends during her retirement.
    Repairs are easy if you have a needle, some spare yarn, and the ability to darn.
    As for carting them around while shopping, it’s something you just get used to.
    Sometimes I still get plastic bags, but only when I need some for lining my garbage cans.
    For doggie-doo, I use the ones the newspaper comes in and also the plastic bags I put my produce in at the grocery store. Bread bags are another great option.

  2. KK says:

    Most “cloth” bags being sold at grocery stores/retailers (those fleece-like black ones) around here are neither cotton nor thick, durable plastic – they are made out of recycled plastic. Maybe even recylced plastic bags… And yes, using a cotton bag 131 times is a no-brainer. They are washable (as are those black ones). I’ve had some for more than 20 years. It IS a good idea to use recyclable plastic bags when packing raw meat – reusing them means “reusing” the bacteria present in the raw meat.

  3. Ken Kellehar says:

    wonderful blog ! I agree with everything you say here. Can I use this on my facebook page ?

  4. john says:

    This article is a bunch of petro propaganda. Cotton is carbon neutral like fire wood. Cotton may give off carbon when decaying but also absorbs it when growing just like trees.

  5. Fat Matty says:

    What is truly sad about all of this, is that regardless of the style or makeup of the bags themselves, we continue to dispose of them and produce new ones. There would not be any carbon emissions created through the production of hand bags if we simply stopped buying them, and put the manfacturers out of business.

  6. James says:

    I’d always wondered how a thick paper bag could be more environmentally friendly than its lightweight plastic counterpart. And now I know – it isn’t.

    Of course, the emphasis supermarkets place on using reusable bags is somewhat of a smokescreen. My family comes home every week with several kilos of packaging material – cardboard, plastic and metal – that absolutely dwarfs the environmental impact of a couple of shopping bags. It’s quite clever of Loblaws, Safeway and Walmart to emphasize the importance of the shopping bag while completely ignoring the impact of its contents.

  7. alan.parker says:

    Just a couple of responses to:
    1. John.
    It’s not “petro propaganda,” John, it’s anti-propaganda. I’m very down on excessive use of plastic bags, but (for my life) they have certain relevant uses so I use them — but as little as possible and conscious of their impact.
    As for cotton being “carbon neutral,” woooo — are you ever misinformed. The issue of “carbon footprint” is about how much greenhouse gas emission is caused directly or indirectly in the production of a product. Cotton fabric requires a huge amount of energy and water to produce — from the irrigated cotton fields, to the powered mechanical picking and carding, processing of the raw cotton, production of thread, knitting, fabrication, transportation (in the case of cotton, usually half way around the world) and so. I know it’s hard to accept, but cotton production is a hog for resources of all kinds. (Paper production is also a heavy, heavy user of carbon-based energy and water — but not nearly as much as cotton.)

    2. KK
    You’re right, KK — keep washing those bags ’til they fall apart if you so choose and good on ‘ya. I have socks and underwear that are probably 20 years old too, but I think I should have thrown most of them out a decade ago. Same goes for my ratty old cloth bags. The great thing about reusable, long-life plastic carryalls — whether they be “hard” plastic or “fabric-feel” carriers like the black bags you’re describing (Loblaws, aren’t they?) is that they become carbon-neutral after just a couple of weeks use — so if you’re using one of those bags for six months or six years before it rips or the handles come off, you’re waaaaaaaay ahead of the game.

  8. Marilyn says:

    OK, so far as you went.

    BUT you did not address either the problem of off-gassing of plastic products or of the health and environmental problems associated with their disposal.

    I think the comparatives you gave have been fairly well recognized for a long time for the “cradle” part of the lifespan of various carrier types, but it has been addressing the “grave” end that is of most concern. The crap leaching into the water table and air from all the plastic disposed of in our societiies is of real concern.

    I’d love to find some cradle stats on the new bamboo fabric, but haven’t so far. The grave end is pretty good.

    And I have had my cloth bags for over a decade and just keep washing them and using them. Learning how to fold them small and wrap them with a little velcro strip or elastic band and remembering to put one or two right back in your purse or coat pocket as soon as you empty it takes a while, but worth it I think. And I too still get some plastic for garbage bin liners.

    Really complicated subject, and one of those where it seems that no answer is perfect, so w’ve jusy got to do the best we can with the information we have, I guess.

  9. nokohe says:

    Way to go dipshit!
    You have just justified more moronic behaviour by all the environmentally ignorant trolls who read this.
    Cotton bags are hardly as carbon detrimental as plastic,since cotton is a plant which in growing consumes carbon.
    Polyethylene is made from refined hydrocarbons/oil which is in no way carbon friendly.
    When was the last time you saw cotton bags littering the landscape or hanging from the trees after a windstorm?
    Publishing a stupid commentary such as yours is tantamount to blaming the Jews for contributing the slave labour that built the ovens of the Holocaust.
    SUN newspapers should be ashamed to give you a paycheck!
    Stupid,stupid,stupid man!

  10. alan.parker says:

    Nokohe, you better get a handle on your self-hatred or you’re going to implode. As for everyone else — the production of cotton material requires large amounts of energy and water in the growing, transportation and manufacture stages — far more than I realized. It’s like a cotton shirt — wear it for 20 years and it’s great; wear it for two months and it’s bad.
    Alan

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