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Could Plastic Really Be the Greenest Bag Option?

2/21/2011 3:54:32 PM

Tags: paper versus plastic, plastic grocery bags, reusable grocery bags, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailIs anything easy?

For years, I’ve felt pretty smug about bringing my own cloth bags to the grocery store. I save a little on my grocery bill (5 cents a bag), and I’m not supporting the nasty plastic industry or killing trees for paper bags. Easy green points, right?

Martin Hickman reports in yesterday’s Guardian that an unpublished British Environment Agency report suggests that high density polythene (HDPE) bags are actually greener than paper or cloth. For each use, HDPE bags are almost 200 times less damaging to the climate than cotton and emit less than one third of the carbon dioxide as paper bags. “The bag performed well because it was the lightest single-use bag considered,” the study concludes.

The study—which assessed the bags based on pollution caused by raw material extraction, production, transportation and disposal—was commission in 2005 and scheduled for publication in 2007, but the Environment Agency says it is still being reviewed.

The study’s flaw, in my mind, is that it assumes people use cotton bags only 51 times before they discard them. The beauty of cotton and canvas bags is that they can be washed and re-used indefinitely. (I’ve had some for more than a decade.)

Do be sure to wash your bags regularly in hot water. Lisa Hover reports in Lifehacker that random tests on reusable grocery bags found that 64 percent were contaminated with bacteria, about 30 percent had elevated bacterial counts, 40 percent had yeast or mold and some had an unacceptable presents of coliforms.

Also, be wary of “nonwoven polypropylene” bags, including those sold by Safeway, Walgreens, CVS, and Blooms, which a new report by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) found to have high lead content. “The results revealed that 16 retailers had bags with excessive lead, with some bags containing nearly 7 times the amount of the levels set by states for heavy metals in packaging,” Katherine Lee reports in Katherine offers some great tips in her post How to Use Reusable Shopping Bags Safely. 

plastic bag 

An unpublished study says plastic bags are greener than paper or cloth. iStock photo 




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3/21/2011 11:31:41 PM
For quite a while, I used to bring reusable bags to the grocery store; they offered 3-cents per bag discount, but tempered that by the rule that you could only bring reusable bags with their store logo on them (i.e. no Walmart or Shaws bags could be used at Hannaford). Then they stopped giving any discount for the use of the bags; perhaps it was just for spite, but I stopped bringing the bags and went back to plastic. Recently, I've re-evaluated my position on the whole thing and went back to bringing my reusable bags. When I questioned WHY I was using reusable bags in the first place, it came back to me that it wasn't about the 3-cents per bag, or whose bags I was using; it was about helping the environment. (By the way, Hannaford now lets you bring anyone's reusable bags)

rick vanhorn
3/8/2011 4:51:28 PM
I live in the sticks out in the middle of the woods. And I do not have to go far to find plastic Walmart bags in the trees! By the looks of them some have been there quite awhile. The same with road ditches. No, I'll stay with my clothe bags (homemade and recycled from the local clothing bank)

Robyn Griggs Lawrence
3/2/2011 4:43:21 PM
Hey, Everybody...thanks for all the great comments. I'm not sure I made it clear that my recommmendation is definitely still to bring your own bags (and wash them often). I wrote that the study’s flaw is that it assumes people use cotton bags only 51 times before they discard them. The beauty of cotton and canvas bags is that they can be washed and re-used indefinitely. (I’ve had some for more than a decade.) I love the Chico bags that fold up into little packets that fit in my I no longer get to the cashier and realize that I've left my bags in the car!

Peggy Harnish
3/2/2011 10:25:30 AM
I have cloth bags which were my mother's, who died in 1997. She used them for at least 10 years before she died, and I have used them at least once a week since then. A conservative estimate is these bags have been used 900 times, and they are still going strong. I expect one of my daughters will use them after I die. Cloth is, without a doubt, better for the environment.

J Marie
3/1/2011 10:25:23 AM
Mother Earth News just lost all credibility with me by citing the "report" by CCF - These are the people that say high fructose corn syrup is good for us!! I can't believe this article does not mention re-purposing other fabrics and items to create reusable bags. I do this all the time. Too bad Mother Earth News!

3/1/2011 9:25:21 AM
Shame on you for publishing this article based on such flawed and incomplete information. Sheesh.

2/28/2011 6:59:25 PM
Although GoodHousekeeping found most brands of plastic bags did not contain BPA, they did not include bags from the bulk section of the grocery store or market. Who knows is they contain BPA? Also, even plastic bags that do not contain BPA are considered safe *only* for "single use" and not for repeated use, especially including washing. This is also true for disposable plastic water and drink bottles, where more people are aware of it. And finally, cloth bags can be made from items that already exist. That is, they do not require new raw materials or new manufacturing. And, the materials are easily obtained by individuals. In contrast, although some safe reusable plastic bags are created from old banners and soda bottles, many are not and use new materials. Plus, most people don't have access to these materials or the industrial process. Do it yourself with fabric!

2/28/2011 5:42:27 PM
The study on bacteria in cloth bags was funded by the American Chemistry Council, essentially a plastics manufacturers lobby. Three of my 7 cloth grocery bags are 15 years old, and still in regular use. Fifty one times indeed.

Alinda Harrison
2/28/2011 1:14:52 PM
Not only do plastic bags add to the wastestream, but they are extremely difficult to reuse since they break so easily. Hemp bags are wonderful. I just wish they were easier to find. For now, I'll stay with my motley collection of bags from various sources. It's always better to reuse what you have to the end of its natural life than to discard it to buy more. When I finally need to buy more bags, hemp will probably be my preferred choice. I'm also trying to get away from the flimsy plastic produce and bulk food bags as much as possible. Washable mesh bags are good for most produce and I can put most bulk items in little bags I made with clean scrap fabric.

2/22/2011 1:35:14 PM
Good article however the point about plastic being "greener" only went as far as manufacturing them. These bags fill up landfills by not breaking down far worse than paper bags. I use hemp as well as paper because I have so many other uses for the paper bags after bringing home my groceries. 

Robyn Griggs Lawrence
2/22/2011 8:22:45 AM
Great point! Wish I'd thought to make that suggestion. Hemp is definitely the answer to so many of our issues.

2/22/2011 4:10:37 AM
The answer is hemp. I have purchased organic hemp bags which last a long time, are durable and do not cause the same level of waste as cotton, plastic or paper. Hemp for a sustainable future.

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