When you visit the grocery store or take-out restaurant, is it better for the environment if you carry your groceries home in plastic, paper or reusable bags? It’s a more complicated answer than you think.
Sure, plastic bags are convenient since many grocery stores include them with your purchase, but they wreak havoc on the planet.
Paper, while better than plastic, isn’t a great choice either because of carbon emissions as a result of the bag’s manufacturing, particularly if you’re just going to throw it out after only using it once. Aside from that, there is legislation surrounding paper bags too. In order to be considered as a “Recycled paper bag”, the paper bag must be 100% percent recyclable and contain at least 40 percent post-consumer recycled content.
So, what about reusable bags? What kind of impact do they have on the environment? And, are they any better than plastic bags?
Plastic Bags and their Impact on the Environment, Wildlife and Society
Individuals in the U.S. use 100 billion plastic bags every single year. And, for the planet as a whole, estimates are that one trillion plastic bags are sent out to the cosmos. These stark numbers bring with it adverse issues and impacts, including the below.
Plastic Recycling Challenges
While plastic bags are recyclable, there’s special equipment needed for processing them, and they can’t be combined with general recycling. Many municipal recycling plants have decided not to take plastic bags because they clog their machines.
Further, individuals must return them to designated collection centers, and many grocery stores provide this service. Unfortunately, according to Waste Management, only one percent of plastic bags get turned in for recycling. This means only around 15 bags a year are recycled by the average family. And, those 100 billion bags the country uses each year that end up in landfills linger for centuries or even longer.
Birds, Marine Life and Other Animals
Each year 100,000’s of marine animals die because of plastic bags, Waste Management says. Plastic bags begin as fossil fuels and then turn into deadly waste in the ocean and landfills. They ultimately start breaking down into microplastic pieces that pose various issues for birds, fish and other marine life.
Animals often mistake plastic bags for food, especially when the bags contain food residues or are brightly colored. Birds, in particular, frequently mistake shredded plastic bags for food and fill their stomachs with toxic debris. When sea turtles become hungry, it’s almost impossible for them to determine the difference between a floating plastic shopping bag and a jellyfish.
Many animals, land and marine, often choke to death on plastic bags. When animals swallow a plastic bag whole, they can’t digest their real food, and then frequently end up dying a slow death because of starvation or infection.
In fact, a dead whale that was washed ashore in the Philippines, had 88 pounds of plastic garbage in its belly and plastic bags were among the plastic garbage taken out of the animal’s stomach.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, fish consume thousands of tons of plastic every year and transfer it up the food chain to larger fish and marine mammals.
Even though this is happening, almost every American home contains plastic bags because the large retail chains still provide them for almost every purchase made in their stores.
Become Ugly Trash in Neighborhoods, Highways, and Waterways
Plastic bags are an extremely noticeable, ugly component of litter. Plastic bags are also a huge source of both marine and street litter, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Eric Goldstein told the HuffPost. Because they are so lightweight and flimsy they become airborne easily. They often:
- Hang from tree branches
- Litter sidewalks
- Make their way into waterways
- Clog storm drains
They become an eyesore throughout our cities and along our roadways. They get stuck in storm drains and cause flooding on our streets. A 2017 study found more than 80 percent of tap water samples extracted from around the world contained plastic pollutants.
Bans on Plastic Bags
The driving force behind the anti-plastic legislation explosion across the U.S. is concern over ocean health and so far, California and New York have enacted official statewide bans on plastic bags. Dozens of cities have either introduced bans of their own or passed them. Hawaii already has a de facto ban in place.
Vox reports that over 400 ordinances and laws throughout the country have imposed either taxes or bans on plastic bags. National Geographic reports that a minimum of 127 nations have levied taxes or imposed ordinances on plastic bags. ReusethisBag.com states shoppers collectively use around 500 billion single-use plastic bags every year. That’s 150 bags per person, per year, for every single person on Earth — or enough to circle the globe 4,200 times.
Bag the Ban, a website for American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) representing the U.S. plastic bag recycling and manufacturing industry, tracks cities, counties and states that have enacted bag banning legislation or has pending legislation to do so.
Are Reusable Bags Better than Plastic Bags?
The best solution for the issues above is reusable shopping totes or bags. Consumers can use them again and again, but which reusable bags are the best?
Reusable bags are made from a variety of materials. If you decide to use reusable bags, you’ll want to take the material into consideration and how much you plan on reusing the bag.
The two types of materials that are the most common are non woven polypropylene (PP) and cotton. PP is a more durable form of plastic. But, are PP bags better than plastic bags? The answer to that question would be how faithfully you “reuse” them. Since they’re washable and reusable, this is something you can do to make a great impact.
If you were to use non-woven PP, it costs less than cotton and you’d only have to reuse it 11 times for it to break even with traditional plastic, according to a U.K. study.
The Plastic Bags Vs. Reusable Bags Takeaway
Consumers are still confused about which is better: plastic bags or reusable shopping bags. After all, plastic bags are cheaper, and there is “recycling.” But, as you’ve read, only one percent of plastic bags get recycled. So if you’re concerned about our ocean’s and animal’s long-term health and the impact of plastic litter, consider using reusable bags.
The Bottom Line
Plastic is a significant reason behind land pollution since it’s non-biodegradable. It’s a problem that will continue to grow unless more of us are committed to stop using and disposing of plastic bags irresponsibly. It’s the responsibility of both the civic body and consumers to fight against the plastic pollution problem. But, this isn’t always that easy. That’s where reusable bags can come into play, and help you feel confident that you’re doing your part to clean and maintain our precious environment.