There is little controversy that single-use plastic bags are a modern menace.
So, doing away with them, as Safeway did recently, would appear to be a no-brainer.
Or is it?
As with most things, plastic bags are not inherently evil, it is human behaviour that dictates the relative harm of the various options.
When it comes to grocery shopping, the typical options are paper, plastic or fabric.
Of these, plastic bags are, in fact, the most environmentally-friendly to produce. They are re-usable and recyclable, although they usually aren’t. If they were re-used and recycled, they would be the winner by a long shot.
Instead, they end up in the environment, particularly the oceans, where they do not biodegrade and endanger wildlife.
Just how much better are the alternatives, though?
A paper bag requires four times as much water to manufacture and needs to be re-used three times to neutralize the environmental impact of making it. And they are generally made with new paper fibre because recycled paper is not as sturdy meaning more trees being felled for pulp.
They are recyclable, compostable, biodegradable and can be repurposed, however. Most of us of a certain, ahem, vintage, can recall, for example, covering our textbooks with grocery bags.
Paper bags are unlikely to be reused for groceries, though, because they just don’t stand up to repeated use.
We are, of course, all encouraged to use cloth bags, the manufacturing of which carries a far, far greater environmental impact than either plastic or paper. Cotton bags, for example, would have to be reused 131 times to neutralize their production.
Another popular fabric for grocery bags is nonwoven polypropylene (plastic). These require 11 reuses to neutralize their impact.
I know I’m not helping in that regard. I am now the proud owner of more than a dozen reusable Safeway bags because each time I’ve gone to the store, I left the ones I previously bought at home. I suspect these are non-woven PP, which means I need to remember to bring them at least 131 times just to break even.
The other day, I chose paper. If I’m being honest, despite my best intentions, they will definitely not be composted, it is highly unlikely they will be reused and if they are repurposed, it will probably be as fire starter.
That, of course, means unnecessary GHG emissions because it’s pretty hard to justify “there’s nothing like jamming around the old campfire” as a .
Maybe no bags is the way to go. If I just go to the store to get what I need on a daily basis, I could carry it in my arms.
That means driving my gas-powered car more, though.
There is a cost to everything.
I am not advocating for the return of single-use plastic bags, but I do know that the issue is much more complex than just plastic bad/fabric good.