9-9-16 – Plastic Bags Are Better for the Environment

by Rob Roper

An interesting study came out in the UK analyzing the use of plastic grocery bags vs. other options, such as the cotton tote bags that are becoming increasingly popular (in some cases mandated) as a “green” solution. It turns out that those ubiquitous, flimsy plastic bags are the most environmentally friendly option, especially when one considers how each of these options is actually used by people living their lives.

A story in the Atlantic highlighting the study notes:

…the authors found that in typical patterns of use and disposal, consumers seeking to minimize pollution and carbon emissions should use plastic grocery bags and then reuse those bags at least once—as trash-can liners or for other secondary tasks. Conventional plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, the plastic sacks found at grocery stores) had the smallest per-use environmental impact of all those tested. Cotton tote bags, by contrast, exhibited the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far since they require more resources to produce and distribute.

The study went on to find that in order for the cotton totes to make sense as an environmentally sound alternative to plastic bags, each would have to be used 327 times – that’s once a week for over six years. Of course, the quality and durability of these things does not realistically promise a lifespan long enough to meet that goal, nor does it take into account the environmental impact of having to wash these bags to keep them clean and sanitary.

The cheaper tote bags made from recycled polypropylene plastic, on the other hand, still require 26 uses to equal the environmental benefit of the plastic bags they were meant to replace. However, there is a real world problem with these too. Many companies are using them as a marketing tool to show off how “green” they are, printing their logos on them and giving them away. As such, shoppers are accumulating way more of these things than they could possibly use, and this type of tote is rapidly becoming in practice a less environmentally friendly disposable bag.

For several years in a row, a handful of Vermont legislators has flirted with the idea of placing a ban or a mandatory fine on the use of plastic grocery bags (the latest version was H.247). Hopefully, for the sake of the environment and common sense, it will continue to go nowhere.

This just goes to show that the policies supposed environmentalists want to foist on us aren’t always the best policies for the environment, or the citizens.

– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Wavell Cowan September 9, 2016 at 5:29 pm

My wife produces crocheted grocery bags from those plastic bags to which you refer which are the ever reusable means by which we transport our purchases from shopping centers to our home. Surely the “best” green solution.


Rob September 9, 2016 at 6:12 pm

Cool idea!


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The Ethan Allen Institute is Vermont’s free-market public policy research and education organization. Founded in 1993, we are one of fifty-plus similar but independent state-level, public policy organizations around the country which exchange ideas and information through the State Policy Network.

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