My sweetest-ever trip to the grocery store was last month, as I gathered items for my oft-dreamed-of and now-realized Chiefs Super Bowl party. The cashier loaded the nacho cheese, Chex Mix, and M&Ms into thin plastic bags, which in some locales would be illegal.
Such municipalities take this measure in the belief that a bag ban will reduce waste and litter, and, by extension, benefit the environment. In truth, these bans are detrimental and are a victory for emotion over science.
Paradoxically, manufacturers of disposable plastic profit from bans on carryout bags. That’s because these humble methods of conveyance make the least money of all the company’s products. The bags also have the least environmental impact, owing to their flimsiness.
Moreover, even with a ban, customers still need something to carry their Lucky Charms home in. This usually leads to plastic bag manufacturers being able to sell some of their more durable bags, which have a more deleterious effect.
There are three primary myths about the flimsy gray carryout receptacles.
First is that they contribute significantly to ocean plastics. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that the disposable plastic bags from the U.S. constitute just .5 percent of the sea plastic. While other nations contribute more waste from the bags, bans in the U.S. don’t impact that. In other words, banning bags in the U.S. results in only a microscopic reduction in such waste.
The second misnomer is that bans decrease the amount of disposable plastic leaving the supermarket. That’s because about a quarter of carryout bags are reused, for such purposes as diaper disposal, tossing dog waste, or lining Lilliputian trash cans.
In places where such bags are no longer available, persons still need to get rid of baby and/or canine excrement and to cover waste basket bottoms. When localities implement these bans, sales of small- and medium-sized plastic trash bags sales skyrocket, with an increase anywhere from 50 to 150 percent. And as Dunning notes, the banned bags are extremely flimsy, whereas trash bags are much heavier and contain substantially more plastic.
The third myth is that plastic bags do more ecological damage than other choices. Besides the tiny plastic bags, there are three other common options: Paper bags; Durable reusable plastic bags of polyethylene or polypropylene; and reusable cotton bags.
Dunning laid out the impact of each of these over the course of their existence. He explained that this includes the sourcing of its material, its manufacture, transportation, logistics, number of uses, how many goods it houses, and its final destiny, be it in a recycled product, a landfill, or incineration.
Despite its continual chastisement, the tiny carryout bag has by far the lowest environmental impact, mostly because it contains little material.
Also, it is plastic, which has a low melting temperature. Further, it requires less energy to manufacture and recycle than most other materials. Put another way, the banned bag actually serves to satisfy environmentalist goals.
The second best alternative is paper bags, which have four times the carbon footprint of single-use plastics. This means if a consumer reuses a paper bag four times before recycling it, the environmental impact will be the same as using the plastic bag once. I myself have never taken the same paper bag back to the grocery for a second use. Shame on me. But more shame on those banning plastic bags.
Next is the durable reusable plastic bag, offered by some food peddlers as a low-price alternative (though not as low price as the free plastic bag). These reusable bags are heavier and have 14 times the carbon footprint.
Again, this means a consumer would need to use this item 14 times to match the efficiency of its single-use counterpart.
By far the worst choice are cotton bags. Dunning wrote, “Growing cotton involves tractors and seeds and irrigation and a whole other level of impact.” A consumer would need to reuse a cotton grocery bag a whopping 173 times to match the carbon footprint of bringing home a single-use plastic bag. What many assume to be an environmentally-friendly option is anything but, except for the optional part.
Don’t blame me for any of this. I took the plastic bags from the nachos and Chex Mix and made them into receptacles for the bottles which had held my celebratory libations following the Chiefs win.