Plastic Bags vs. Their Alternatives: Shedding Light on a Popular Topic

Over the last few years a spotlight has been put on plastics and plastic pollution. Along with condemning plastic straws and polystyrene take-out containers, getting rid of plastic bags, like those you find in a grocery store, has been the focus of both politicians and the general public. Plastic is one of the biggest pollutants in the environment, so if we get rid of the plastic, then do we help the environment? Unfortunately, according to research done by the U.K. government, the Danish government, and multiple independent research firms and universities, the alternatives to plastic bags are actually worse for the environment. 

            When researchers analyzed plastic bags and their alternatives, they found that plastic bags had the smallest environmental footprint, even when compared to paper. According to a study done by the U.K. government in 2011, a person would have to reuse a cotton grocery tote bag 131 times before it had a smaller environmental impact than using a plastic grocery bag once. In addition, just last year the Danish government conducted a study that took into account environmental impacts beyond GHG emissions (water use, electrical use, damage to ecosystems, etc.) and it concluded that a person would have to use a cotton grocery bag 20,000 times before it became better for the environment than a plastic grocery bag. 

            Not sure how that makes sense? Let’s break it down a little more. Plastic bags were originally created to help the environment. Plastic requires less raw materials and energy to make than paper, glass, or cotton, and is much lighter, thus reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) contribution during transportation. 

            Right now there are cities, states, and even countries banning plastic bags. Recent research has shown that these bans have actually hurt the environment more than they have helped. For example, the bag ban in California led to an increase in GHG emissions because of a surge in trash bag purchases and the increase in paper bag usage or other alternatives. A study done by faculty from the University of Sydney found that trash bag sales skyrocketed after plastic ban bags were put into effect. This was because a lot of people use their plastic grocery bags for other purposes, such as bathroom trash bin liners or to pick up dog poop while on a walk. Because of the bans, they had to start buying more trash bags, which are made from thicker plastic and have a higher carbon footprint. 

            According to research and data, it seems that plastic happens to be the more environmentally-friendly choice. There still remains the problem of plastic pollution though. In order to really combat the plastic pollution problem, a better recycling infrastructure, making it easier to recycle packaging and single use plastics, and increased education for the general public is needed. Plastic takes less energy to recycle and make into new products than paper, glass, metal, or fabric. They can be made into new plastic bags, composite lumber, carpeting, or even children’s toys and playground equipment.

 In summary, the problem isn’t plastic, it’s the people who aren’t recycling their plastic. 

Learn more about how to recycle plastic bags by checking out your local recycler’s website to see if they recycle plastic bags. If not, most grocery stores offer a drop-off site near their entrance.

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