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Sustainable Shopping—Which Bag Is Best?

Each year, Americans use hundreds of billions of plastic bags. Cities all across the world have implemented bans or charges on plastic bags in an effort to reduce the number of bags that are used just once before being discarded. But are reusable bags or paper bags actually much better for the environment? Science demonstrates that there is no simple solution.

Plastic Bags

The fact that plastic bags have the lowest environmental impact of all the shopping bag options is one of their main benefits. High-density polyethene is the material most frequently used to make thin, plastic grocery shop bags (HDPE). Although resources like petroleum are used in the creation of these bags, compared to the production of cotton or paper bags, it produces fewer waste products, toxic byproducts, and carbon emissions.

Plastic bags are also reusable and generally robust. Numerous studies on various bagging techniques that demonstrate how producing plastic bags uses fewer resources make the assumption that plastic bags are used at least twice—once when shopping and once as trash bags—and take this into account when determining which bags are more environmentally friendly.

Despite the fact that plastic bags can be recycled, this rarely happens. It's challenging to recycle plastic bags because they fly around in the facility and get caught in equipment. Many communities do not provide curbside recycling for plastic bags as a result. Large-scale retailers provide bag recycling services instead. But for these services to work, the customer must return the plastic bags to the retailer.

Because they do not biodegrade, bags that are not recycled end up as litter. Plastic bags that end up as litter put the ecosystem, especially marine life and the food chain, in jeopardy in addition to filling up landfills and looking bad. This is due to the fact that plastic bags, like all plastic materials, gradually degrade into tiny fragments known as microplastics. Microplastics have been discovered almost everywhere, including in agricultural soil, urban air, and marine life.

Scientists are worried about how this degree of plastic pollution could alter our planet, despite the fact that we have just recently started investigating the effects of microplastic growth and do not yet know how they will affect humans, animals, and the ecosystem. Studies that concluded that plastic bags were less damaging to the environment than paper and reusable bags did not consider the effects of litter and instead made the assumption that the plastic bags would be recycled or used as garbage bags.

Plastic Bags

Regarding sustainability, paper bags have several advantages over plastic bags. Because they are biodegradable, they can be utilised for activities like composting and are simpler to recycle. However, creating a paper requires a lot of resources: producing a paper bag uses nearly four times as much energy as producing a plastic bag, and the chemicals and fertilisers used in the process also have a negative impact on the environment.

According to studies, a paper bag would need to be used anywhere between three and 43 times before it would have the same environmental impact as plastic. It is doubtful that a person would use a paper bag long enough to balance the environmental impact because they are the least resilient of all the bagging options.

However, the recyclable nature of paper helps to reduce its impact. In 2018, 68.1% of the paper used in the US was recovered for recycling, an increase over the previous ten years. There is a limit to how many times paper can be recycled because the fibres get shorter and weaker with each recycling procedure.

Reusable Bags

The environmental impact of producing the various materials used to make reusable bags varies greatly.

According to a study from the United Kingdom (U.K.), cotton bags need to be reused 131 times before they have the same influence on climate change as plastic bags in terms of bag production. A cotton bag may need to be used thousands of times before it has an environmental impact comparable to plastic bags (which includes climate change as well as other environmental implications). However, alternative materials score significantly better in sustainability parameters than cotton. Another well-liked choice is nonwoven polypropylene (PP). These bags, which are made of more resilient plastic, must be used about eleven times before the environmental impact of regular plastic is equalled.

Reusable bags have the potential of going unused in addition to having a broad range in terms of how environmentally friendly they are since customers have to remember to carry the bags with them to the store. The main advantage of using reusable bags is that it reduces the amount of trash on land and in the ocean. According to studies, places in the US and Europe that have banned plastic bags have seen a reduction in the amount of plastic trash in the waters around them.

Things to Think About

It is difficult to say which type of bag is genuinely the most sustainable because plastic bags have larger negative consequences after being used, while paper and reusable bags have significant upfront environmental costs. The most sustainable option is the bag you already have, whether it be made of plastic, paper, or another material. Every study showed that using a bag as many times as possible lessens its environmental impact, regardless of the type of bag. Overall, it's important to make an effort to reuse any bags that come into your hands and to dispose of them properly.

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