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Are plastic Bags better than paper & reusable alternatives?

We all want to make greener choices and help the environment. Do you believe that paper is more sustainable than plastic or reusable bags are? What best for the answer seems pretty obvious, but not always. Like, single-use plastic shopping bags seem to be going extinct. Stores, cities and even entire countries have banned single-use plastic bags. Replacing them with sturdier, reusable, greener bags, so problem solved, right? Well, when you look at the entire lifecycle of a product, what’s best for the environment can get complex.

By some measures, plastic bags can be the best option. At least if you leave out one crucial factor. There are all kinds of bags out there, but here, we’ll focus on six of the most popular:

  1. single-use plastic bags,
  2. single-use compostable
  3. biodegradable plastic bags,
  4. brown paper bags
  5. thick heavyweight reusable plastic bag
  6. classic cotton tote bag

The Life Cycle Assessment of a Product

From that list, you might think you know which bag is best. But sometimes, our intuition does not line uptrash bag garbage life cycle with reality. This becomes clear when you look at the life cycle assessment. A Life Cycle Assessment examines a product’s total environmental impact. Researchers study and add up each step, from manufacturing to use and disposal.

 Several studies have come to similar conclusions.

The Environmental Protection Agency report of product impact on climate change

The Danish Environmental Protection Agency prepared a report in 2018 report. This report examined two types of impacts: climate change and total environmental impact. The climate change bit was pretty straightforward. They added up all the greenhouse gases emitted throughout the lifetime of these bags. Not all greenhouse gases are equal; each has a unique potential to warm the planet. For easy comparison, the team converted all gases to their carbon dioxide equivalent.

What impact does the production of paper & reusable plastic bags have?

Understanding the total environmental impact is Hard. Researchers studied everything from ozone depletion to toxicity—even water and resource use and other stats. By putting a number on these things and adding them up, they could simultaneously compare a broad range of impacts. The downside is an oversimplification, and they couldn’t fit in some critical variables. We’ll get to those later. But for now, the big question is-

What emissions do paper reusable plastic bags produce?

 Consider what it takes to make the bags. Producing them is the stage with the most significant impact.

Plastic bags

All plastics and single-use plastic bags are made from oil. The studies looked at a type called low-density polyethylene. Most of the impact there came from turning the oil into the plastic material.

Biodegradable & compostable plastic bags

 Biodegradable plastic bags are made from a starch biopolymer, which is plastic. It uses plant starches instead of traditional plastic. Manufacturing biodegradable bags emits similar amounts of greenhouse gases to plastic bags. The agriculture of plant starches uses more water, fertilizer, and pesticides. From a production standpoint, Biodegradable plastic is worse than single-use stuff.

Paper Bags

 To make a paper bag, you need to start with a tree. Turning wood pulp into paper can emit a lot of greenhouse gases! The kind of fuel used by paper mills changes results. Hence, different studies can come to different conclusions about paper bags. According to Danish researchers, they have a climate impact similar to that of single-use plastic. If thick reusable bags seem to be a better solution than other bags, it’s not what you think.

Reusable plastic bags

 Thick, reusable plastic bags are also made from oil, and you need more of it to make a thicker bag, there’s a bigger impact. Heavier bags also need more fuel to transport them to the grocery store.

Cotton tote’s 

 Are cotton tote bags environmentally friendly?

farming cotton for bagsCotton totes seem like a green option, but growing cotton is hard. Cotton requires vast amounts of land, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Processing cotton is also energy-intensive. When it comes to making the bag, single-use plastics win by almost every measure. The worst material by far is cotton! But how something is produced doesn’t really reflect real life. 

Is plastic bags worse than paper or reusable kinds?

 Using a shopping bag doesn’t cause pollution but affects how we compare materials. Ideally, you don’t use your nice cotton bag once and then throw it away. We compare by calculating the times a bag must be reused to offset its impact compared to using a new plastic bag.

How often must a reusable bag be used to be environmentally friendly?

 The climate impact of paper & biodegradable plastic bags is about the same as single-use bags. In contrast, heavier reusable plastic bags must be reused at least six times to equal to single-use bags. In contrast, cotton bags must be reused at least 149 times.

 The Danish report & UK’s Environment Agency 2011 study both had similar findings.

 To offset the climate change impact of a single-use plastic bag. You’d need to use a paper bag three times, a reusable plastic bag 11 times, and a cotton bag 131 times. These numbers change if you look at the total environmental impact. Categories like toxicity, ozone effects, runoff, and everything else, must be considered too.

To be greener than single-use plastic bags. All biodegradable, paper and reusable bags must each be used about 40 to 50 times. Cotton bags but need to be reused 7100 times!

Are cotton greener than plastic bags? In simple words

Suppose you shop for groceries three times per week. You will need to use the same cotton bag for 45 years to have the same impact as using over 7000 single-use bags! This was even higher for organic cotton because organic crop yields are often lower. You’d need to reuse that bag 20,000 times!

Are any plastic, paper, or reusable bags sustainable?

So, there’s clearly an issue with some of these materials. For example, the numbers for reusable plastic bags are well within the expected lifespan. I have been using reusable plastic bags since 2004. Only the Danish report calculated the total impact in this manner. We don’t yet have many studies to support bag reuse numbers. Still, just based on that, it might seem like plastic comes out ahead.

The plastics industry uses this logic and comparisons to lobby against regulations.

There is one more key variable that must be considered: the disposal of plastic.

Plastic’s kryptonite 

Its lifespan is plastic’s Achilles’ heel: there’s no good way to dispose of it. Litter impacts marine ecosystems; now, suddenly, single-use plastics look a lot less green. It’s hard to get good data on what fraction of plastic bags are recycled, but we know it’s low, possibly around one to three percent. 

Many recycling programs don’t accept bags because they get caught in sorting machines. Bags that aren’t recycled sit in landfills, clog sewers, and pollute waterways. Plastic bags are especially bad since they’re easily picked up by the wind and strewn across a large area. They also take a long time to break down and directly threaten wildlife. Bags get wrapped around creatures & eaten when mistaken for food.

 What are the effects of litter on ecosystems?

We could not find a study comparing the effects of litter on ecosystems. Introducing biodegradable or compostable materials bags is supposed to solve this problem. A 2019 study found biodegradables & compostables better than traditional plastics. Trials found after three years found none of the bags tested broke down in all environments. Paper bags are biodegradable, so the impact of litter is low. And they’re recyclable! But left to break down in a landfill, they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Disposal of thicker, heavier reusable plastic and cotton bags has a smaller footprint. This is because they’ve been reused many times.

Do reusable plastic and cotton bags get recycled?

 Both can be recycled, but that doesn’t mean that they always are. Only around 15% of textiles, a broad category that includes cotton bags, end up recycled.

Which is the most environmentally friendly bag?

And finally, the greenest bag is, the answer truly is “It Depends!” The best material depends on many factors, including your individual habits. The number of times you reuse each type of bag and how you dispose of your bags. Making single-use plastic bags has a relatively low environmental impact. When plastic waste needs to be disposed of, it becomes a massive problem with no good solution.

 The best option for ending a plastic bag’s life is to recycle it by dropping it off at a drop-off point. The other option is to reuse it as a trash bag. Presumably, you’d be using something to contain the trash anyway. It’s better than letting the bag get into the environment where it does damage. The bag can’t fly away if weighed down by stuff. Meanwhile, manufacturing paper or biodegradable plastic has higher impacts, but these materials reduce the problem of litter. The heavier reusable plastic bags are a great option if you reuse them enough.

Do cotton bags affect climate change?

Cotton tote bags have by far the biggest environmental impact. They look very green when you’ve got them on your shoulder, but it turns out that’s kind of a lie. They must be used hundreds of times to counteract their climate footprint and possibly thousands if you consider many environmental impacts.

Are plastic bags better for the environment?

We’re not saying plastic bags are good. They’re not. But it is vital to remember that alternatives have an impact, too. It’s not worth going out to buy a snazzy new reusable product if you already have one that works. Irrespective of what bags are made of, the best way to lower their impact is simple. Stop using new ones and reuse the bags you have as many times as possible.

How to properly dispose of plastic bags?

And when you can’t use a bag anymore, do what you can to ensure it doesn’t become litter. Remember that despite all the attention grocery bags get, they’re only a small part of our impact on this planet. A study & analysis of product life cycles lets us better understand how to reduce waste. This, in turn, helps find better ways to decrease our environmental footprint.

How to recycle waste & plastic bags at home?

Single-use plastic & other bags must not be put into bins loose. They should be packed together in a bag so it’s easy to pick out. It’s best to drop them off at a bag recycling station. Most large merchant stores have bag drop-off stations. These changes can ensure discarded bags get repurposed into products like benches & tiles. 

Getting out the sewing machine & scissors to get busy repurposing old clothes into shopping totes helps reduce textile waste while having a unique tote. You can also use them as a shopping bag, backpack, and grocery bag dispenser without damaging them by cutting or stitching them. Learn how to click the video here.

The best action that improves the circular economy loop is ensuring bags are free of organic matter.

Food waste in the recycling or trash bin gets landfilled or incinerated. Most people want to do right by the environment, but it gets too messy, and food waste diversion rates plateaued. Some cities are the exception to the plastic bag rule. They can be used in the green bin in Toronto & Ottawa in Canada. Bags get removed at the recycling facility or compost station. Plastic was allowed to increase participation in the program. But sadly, to date, the pain of washing out a stinking trash can has resulted in improper disposal practices.

A mess, stink & work-free trash can system by BagEZ

 How would you like to have a clean bin sitting on your driveway every week without paying extra? You sit back and relax with no water or harmful chemicals and wasted effort.

 Check out BagEZ, A steel bag holder that’s built to last & keeps cans clean without washing. Taking a garden hose to a dirty trash can & getting sprayed with contaminated water is the old way of doing things. Hope we helped.

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