Are Canvas Grocery Bags Really Better for the Environment?

Environment News / September 30, 2016 /

Canvas bags might actually be worse for the environment than the plastic ones they are meant to replace. In 2008, the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) published a study of resource expenditures for various bags: paper, plastic, canvas, and recycled-polypropylene tote bags. Surprisingly, the authors found that in typical patterns of use and disposal, consumers seeking to minimize pollution and carbon emissions should use plastic grocery bags and then reuse those bags at least once—as trash-can liners or for other secondary tasks. Conventional plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, the plastic sacks found at grocery stores) had the smallest per-use environmental impact of all those tested. Cotton tote bags, by contrast, exhibited the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far since they require more resources to produce and distribute.

Such results feel deeply counterintuitive. HDPE bags seem foreign, artificial. They lodge in trees, catch in the esophagi of animals, fester in landfills, clot cities, and are reduced to small particles floating in oceans—for hundreds of years into the future. But even though they don’t easily degrade, they require very few resources to manufacture and transport. They produce less carbon, waste, and byproducts than cotton or paper bags. They’re recyclable. They’re cheap. For all those reasons, they’re ubiquitous. And they remain, long after their usefulness is exhausted.

Read more at: theatlantic.com