If a plastic bag is reused in the home as the garbage bag in a bathroom waste bin, does that reduce its footprint by eliminating the need for another small plastic garbage bag?
Studies of bags’ environmental impacts over their life cycle have reached widely varying conclusions.
Some are funded by plastic industry groups, like the ironically named American Progressive Bag Alliance.
That’s leading to a split in the anti-bag movement.
Some bills, like in Massachusetts, try to reduce the use of paper bags as well as plastic, but still favor paper.
The adverse impacts of plastic bags are undeniable: When they’re not piling up in landfills, they’re blocking storm drains, littering streets, getting stuck in trees, and contaminating oceans, where fish, seabirds, and other marine animals eat them or get tangled up in them.
As longtime plastic bag adversary Ian Frazier recently reported in , “In 2014, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, behind smaller debris such as cigarette butts, plastic straws, and bottle caps.” The New York City Sanitation Department collects more than 1,700 tons of single-use carry-out bags every week, and has to spend .5 million a year to dispose of them.One of the most comprehensive research papers on the environmental impact of bags, published in 2007 by an Australian state government agency, found that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic.That’s primarily because more energy is required to produce and transport paper bags.“People look at [paper] and say it’s degradable, therefore it’s much better for the environment, but it’s not in terms of climate change impact,” says David Tyler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon who has examined the research on the environmental impact of bag use.People still need bags to bring home their groceries.And the most common substitute, paper bags, may be just as bad or worse, depending on the environmental problem you’re most concerned about.Climate change, they say, isn’t the only form of environmental degradation to worry about.“Paper does have its own environmental consequences in terms of how much energy it takes to generate,” acknowledges Emily Norton, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club.Like cigarettes, plastic bags have recently gone from a tolerated nuisance to a widely despised and discouraged vice.Last month, the New York City Council passed a 5-cent-per-bag fee on single-use bags handed out by most retailers.For example, because paper bags take up so much more space, more trucks are needed to ship paper bags to a store than to ship plastic bags.Still, many environmentalists argue that plastic is worse than paper.