Before you rush off to buy a cotton shopping bag.
Did you know that grocery bags made of plastic are more environmentally friendly than the alternatives made of paper, bioplastic, and cotton? Even if these plastic bags are only used once.
This has been confirmed by a study done by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency.
To understand the impact of reusable bags on the environment, one has to keep in mind two things. One: Plastic bags do not biodegrade and are stuffing the oceans, marine life, and our food supply with plastic particles. Two: Considering all the other environmental impacts besides litter, a cotton shopping bag or a paper bag may be worse for the environment than a plastic one.
To be fair, this Danish assessment does not take marine litter into account—so as far as this gigantic problem is concerned, plastics are almost certainly the worst, since they don’t break down on a timescale meaningful to human or animal life.
But when factoring in other issues, like the impact of manufacturing on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution, and human toxicity, those classic, plastic shopping bags are actually not a huge issue.
This debate over paper, plastic, or reusable materials is not just about the type of bag you bring to the grocery store. The debate highlights a fundamental flaw in our culture of consumption. Most things we buy come wrapped in plastic. Therefore, the entire system is broken. Looking at the bigger picture, we need to rethink how we buy consumables, rather than worrying about just shopping bags. And the cotton shopping bag.
Solving the problem of excessive plastic packaging and the wider plastics issues including for example straws will require a larger effort than local bans on certain types of bags and straws. For one thing, bans can have unintended consequences. A recent study of California grocery stores found that, in the wake of laws aimed at shopping bags, sales of plastic garbage bags skyrocketed and the use of paper bags spiked, too.
What is required is a more holistic approach. First, the public needs to be aware of the challenge and be encouraged to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. Second, governments need to set clear, sensible rules and adopt safeguards. Third, businesses need to show leadership and understand their responsibilities for resource protection and sustainability.
But for now, no matter what type of bag you choose at the grocery store, the best practice is to use it multiple times, rather than throwing it away after a single use. And, whatever you have in your home now—be it a cotton shopping bag, or a pile of plastic bags—don’t throw them out. Keep using them until they fall apart. Find new uses for old clothes. Use textiles until they wear out. Consider buying second-hand. Plus, knowing how many resources it takes to make a piece of cotton, treat fabric items in your home like infinitely reusable resources.