Yesterday’s Independent on a recent British Environment Agency report:
…an HDPE plastic bag would have a baseline global warming potential of 1.57 kg Co2 equivalent, falling to 1.4 kg Co2e if re-used once, the same as a paper bag used four times (1.38 kg Co2e).
A cotton bag would have to be re-used 171 times to emit a similar level, 1.57 kg Co2e.
The researchers concluded: “The HDPE bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the single use options in nine of the 10 impact categories. The bag performed well because it was the lightest single use bag considered.”
My grandfather is a registered plastic bag lobbyist in Ontario. This doesn’t mean that I’m in any way beholden to the plastic bag industry (it’s not his primary source of income so it’s not like he would be out shivering in the cold or anything if he stopped being a plastic bag lobbyist, and in fact I’ll be damned if I draw his attention to this study), but it does mean that I’ve had the opportunity to yell at him at the Sunday dinner table for being ridiculous on several occasions, only to have him, unscathed, throw the same boiler-plate arguments I’d just refuted back in my face. And from this experience, I’d like to think that I’ve refined my perspective on this topic, which is this:
- Yes, plastic bags are individually less harmful than either paper or (in all likelihood) cloth;
- Yes it’s dumb to ban them, BUT!
- Toronto’s decision to make stores charge $.05 per bag, which has reduced plastic bag sales by 70-80% in the city is still a massively good thing because…
- A nickel (if the plan to phase out the penny goes forward) is the least possible amount of money you can charge someone, and therefore…
- The charge is more a prompt to customers to assess whether or not a plastic bag (or 5) is even necessary or any more convenient than just putting the pack of gum you just bought in your pocket, and I’d contend that the biggest part of this 70 to 80% reduction stems from exactly this kind of optimization (recall that the first and greatest R is Reduce!);
- Paper bags seem no more popular than they were before the ban and I use my cloth bags for all kinds of things other than groceries that plastic bags would be useless for (an added value unaccounted for in the study), and haven’t bought a new one in over a year; and finally
- The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. QED.
Also, paper and cloth bags are not the only alternative. No Frills (a Toronto-area discount grocery store), instead of recycling all the banana boxes their produce is shipped in, throws them into big bins near the check-out kiosks for customer use (recall that the second R is Reuse!). The bins are just there, and the conscientious among us are free to bring our boxes back with us on our next visit, and throw them right back into the heap. This is awesome, and what all stores should do.
Update: Oh man, I was on the bus yesterday night and totally realized I’d illustrated this post with the wrong bit of media. The right bit of media?