Feb 19, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Isabel Hicks | Illustration by Bibi Powers
On Jan. 21, the Colorado House of Representatives reintroduced two bills that would phase out commercial use of single-use plastics and styrofoam after the initiatives failed to move forward last year.
Eight other states have already instituted plastic bag bans, along with several cities including Chicago and Washington D.C. Currently, 18 states have legislation that limits the use of plastic bags, straws, and coffee stirrers, among other single-use goods.
It is clear that — ever so slowly — some states are moving away from plastic bags that are harmful to our oceans and wildlife.
So, how are people supposed to carry their groceries?
Paper bags, often seen as a friendlier alternative to plastic bags, actually take significantly more energy to manufacture than their plastic counterparts. Many opponents of single-use plastic legislation often cite this extra energy as an argument against the ban, according to Environment Colorado.
A 2011 study by Britain’s Environmental Agency found a person would have to reuse a paper bag three times before its environmental impact from a carbon emissions standpoint equaled that of a plastic bag used only once.
Yet important to consider is a paper bag’s ability to be recycled, or even composted. Plastic bags, on the other hand, take 10-20 years to decompose in a commercial landfill. Additionally, plastic bags break down into microplastics, which are small particles of plastic that can harm sea turtles, birds, and other marine life when ingested.
Another popular reusable option is a cotton tote bag, but growing cotton is not an effortless process. It is one that produces a significant amount of greenhouse gases, not to mention the environmental impact of pesticides often used to aid the growing process.
The same British study found that a customer would have to use their cotton bag 131 times to equal the same environmental impact, in terms of carbon emissions, of just using a plastic bag once.
Other notable plastic bag alternatives are polyester, which would need to be used 42 times to be comparable to plastic, and woven polypropylene, which would need to be used 12 times.
Although these measurements are used as fuel against the bag ban movement, they are only looking at bag efficiency in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
There are many more factors to consider, such as what materials bags are made from, the distance bags travel from their manufacturing source to customers, and whether bags are able to be recycled at every commercial facility.
When you get into the nitty-gritty science of it all, it becomes difficult to name a reusable option as the clear winner. Some options are better than others, sure, but that depends on how you measure “better.”
The bottom line: reusable bags are only better for the environment than plastic ones when they are reused.
That is why single-use plastic bans are a necessary step in reducing carbon emissions — not just plastic waste. They’re a crucial factor in changing consumer behavior. Even the most environmentally-conscious people forget their reusable bags sometimes, and must load their groceries into plastic bags out of necessity. If these plastic bags aren’t provided anymore — and paper bags are taxed, an addition to many single-use plastic bills — consumer behavior could shift to reusable bags being reused consistently.
If consumers reuse bags enough, their production emissions will be less than emissions from continued production of single-use plastic bags — not to mention the amount of microplastics in our environment will decrease.
The other bottom line: more important than what kind of bag people use is the food that goes inside it. Buying food that is produced locally and in season, and eating less meat, are both steps people can take to reduce their carbon footprint.
A pound of meat bought at the grocery store produces 25 times more emissions than manufacturing a plastic bag. Our food production system contributes to a quarter of greenhouse gases emissions worldwide.
Livestock is responsible for over half of agricultural-related emissions.
Overall, if people really want to help the environment, they should support single-use plastic ban legislation, commit to reusing their reusable bags, and eat less meat.
And, of course, vote out politicians who are controlled by the 100 companies that collectively produce 71% of global industrial emissions.