Brad Waltz: Plastic bags best for convenience … and the environment

It seems counterintuitive to suggest that plastic bags are the least bad option, environmentally speaking, for getting groceries home, but it is indeed the case and as someone that cares about convenience AND the environment, I hope to convince you of that. 

Paper and cotton bags must be more environmentally friendly than plastic. No. University of Oregon Chemistry Professor, David Tyler had this to say in a 2012 interview. “There are really good things about plastic bags—they produce less greenhouse gas, they use less water and they use far fewer chemicals compared to paper or cotton. The carbon footprint, that is, the amount of greenhouse gas that is produced during the life cycle of a plastic bag, is less than that of a paper bag or a cotton tote bag. If the most important environmental impact you wanted to alleviate was global warming, then you would go with plastic.”


How can that be, paper bags can be recycled and that’s good for the environment, and if they do make it to the landfill they are far more environmentally friendly than plastic. Wrong on both counts. Again it seems counterintuitive but making paper AND plastic bags from raw materials is still more environmentally friendly than recycling is, in the case of the plastic bags, Dr Tyler says, “The petroleum industry doesn’t waste anything”. The paper bags that do make it to the landfill take up ten times the space as their plastic counterparts and do not degrade any quicker. 

I’m not convinced Brad, the cotton totes have to be environmentally friendly. No. The cotton that is used in cotton bags uses 25% of the pesticides used in the US and huge amounts of water. The UK Environmental Agency found that a cotton bag would need to be used 173 times to have a lower environmental impact than one single use bag. Between the irrigation needed to grow cotton and the water necessary to clean it as suggested by the US Department of Health, the use of water far exceeds that of single use plastic!  If followed rigorously The Reason Foundation noted 40 times more water just to clean them as recommended than is used in the manufacture of the plastic bags.

If “single use” plastic bags were banned obviously less plastic would make into the landfill. Again the answer is no. When in 2011 Australia banned plastic shopping bags they reportedly noted a 36% drop in plastic shopping bags reaching the landfill. The report however went on to say this was offset by heavier, thicker purchased plastic bags which take up more landfill space than those that were banned. 

Single use plastic bag bans harm the poor the most. It should go without saying, every dollar spent on bags to transport groceries is one less dollar available to purchase groceries. 

And lastly, these bags are not just single use bags. They are reused in many ways, they are used to pick up dog poop, used for cleaning a cat’s litter box, as bathroom trash can liners, to dispose of meat scraps, to clean out vehicles, they’re reused in many ways and absent the availability of them, homeowners and consumers will need to purchase true, single use bags.

If the outcome of legislation matters and not the intentions, it is vital that evidence based facts be used, not emotion based do something-ism. Facts matter in legislation, facts matter in environmentalism, facts matter, and in the case of, “to ban or not to ban”, the facts clearly state, so called “single use” plastic bags should not be banned! It doesn’t seem like the right thing to do is nothing, but in this case, right now, it is. Do not pass this legislation! Don’t- it’s for the convenience sure but more importantly to many, it’s for the environment.

Brad Waltz

Bowling Green

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