With Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio breathing hot CO2 down your neck, Teslas electrically hitting the speed of light, and every barely-sentient lip piercing at Whole Foods being totally insufferable, you’ve become hyper-aware of your carbon footprint and climate change. So let me ask you a question, should you use paper or plastic bags when you are packing up your supermarket items? Moreover, are you, as my title suggests, dumb?
Hidden In Plain Sight
- Every bag, regardless of how it’s made or discarded, has an environmental impact.
- Paper bags weigh, on average, about five to seven times that of a plastic bag. This means a 5.0-7.0x increase in tonnage for the garbage men to deal with. Does my Dear Reader want to make their job more difficult? So much for being a champion of the working class.
- Landfill degradation is a myth. The more things decompose the more they excrete greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We hold things in landfills so they do not degrade, or do it as slowly as Earthly possible. Trash is mostly a problem of aesthetics.
- Plastic bans fail for many reasons such as lack of citizen support, ensuing avoidant strategies, limitations of bag reuse options, and reduction of a complicated issue into facile government intervention. We know government prohibition is a bad idea.
Law & Order: PVP
Some time ago, before the U.K. became insane and decided to arrest a guy for teaching his girlfriend’s pug to perform the Nazi salute while mostly ignoring the hoards of under-age girls being trafficked through Aylesbury, Banbury, Bristol, Derby, Keighley, Oxford, Rochdale, and, by far the worst, Rotherham, Scotland did some research on the plastic bag debacle. Take this 2005 Scottish Report wherein their government spent over two years debating and studying the PVP bag issue in which I presume, with their accents, was the silliest governmental discussion of all time. Well, maybe it’s still the Ugandan poo poo man. Anyway, for the data I’m about to share, the Scots used the standard high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic grocery bag as their control and in each category of environmental impact, it was labeled a 1. So, the following numbers will be a paper bag’s score based against plastic’s control of 1.
- Consumption of non-renewable primary energy – 1.1x for paper
- Consumption of water – 4.0x for paper
- Climate change (emission of greenhouse gasses) – 3.3x for paper
- Acid rain (atmospheric acidification) – 1.9x for paper
- Air quality (ground-level ozone formation) – 1.3x for paper
- Eutrophication of water bodies – 14.0x for paper
- Solid waste Production – 2.7x for paper
- Risk of litter – 0.2x for paper
According to the Scots, people don’t litter with paper bags as much as they do with plastic, so, there is that. However, paper is obviously inferior in all categories of environmental impact, especially in those involved with production of the bags.
England and Wales
In this study, some stuff was discovered, let’s talk about it. These English scientists continued to skip their dentist appointments in order to study the reusability and environmental impact of conventional plastic grocery bags (High-Density Polyethylene or HDPE), paper bags, longer-life bags (cotton, non-woven polypropylene), and a plastic bag-for-life (low-density polyethylene or LDPE). Here are the results.
- The conventional, HDPE plastic bag wiped the God-damned floor with the alternatives, even those that were designed to be reusable.
- Plastic bags have a much lower global warming potential than heavy, sturdier bags such as paper or cotton reusable bags. Cotton takes huge amounts of pesticide and water to produce, which hurts its case for being environmentally friendly.
Perhaps my Dear Reader is autistic and is moved only by numbers, welcome to the club.
- To equal the environmental impact of an HDPE plastic bag used only once, a paper bag needs to be used three times, an LDPE bag four times, a non-woven PP bag 11 times, and a cotton bag 131 times.
- Let’s say we decided to reuse this devil, the HDPE plastic bag, three times. We’d have to reuse a paper bag nine times, LDPE 12 times, non-woven PP 33 times, and a cotton bag 393 times.
What I’m saying is that if my Dear Reader uses a plastic bag, then reuses it twice, he or she can climb on top of a roof and scream about how they’ve done more for the environment than Elon Musk and Leonardo DiCaprio combined.
Let us look North to our Trudeau-led brethren who pretend they are America’s rational older brother, even though they have been fully independent for about 20 minutes and let the United States military do all the biting for their bark. Perhaps Trudeau would be tougher on immigration and refugees if he had skin in the game, but he, along with every other rich politician, does not send his kids to the schools with adult children who are disproportionately likely to sexually assault others than natives of the country (oh, and don’t forget about Rotherham, ever). Wait, I think this is supposed to be about plastic bags, and Canada surprisingly has the best resource I’ve discovered on this topic.
- Litter is a YUGE problem. Well, according to multiple accounts, plastic bags routinely make up less than one percent of litter in Canada. The worst finding was 2.55 percent and these are individual items of trash, not by weight. When trash is analyzed by weight, plastic bags are practically nonexistent and far from a national crisis.
- Bags are not made in Canada but in some godforsaken place such as China or Cambodia. Not true, 90 percent of Canadian plastic bags are made locally. Canada is the third largest advanced plastic manufacturer in North America, next to Ohio and California (the U.S. makes 72.5 percent of their bags locally).
- Plastic bags are only used once, eh? Not at all, an Ontario study found they had a 59.1 percent reuse rate as kitchen catchers, shopping, storage, lunch bags, organics collection, pet waste, and more. Several studies found a reuse rate higher than that.
- Recycling. It’s often said that plastic bags are not recycled regularly, but this does not hold up under scrutiny. In Canada, 30-50% of plastic bags that aren’t reused are recycled immediately.
- Plastic bags are made with oil. Not oil, ethane. Canada’s ethane usage for bags actually conserves resources. When natural gas is being extracted, they grab the ethane byproduct at a lower BTU so the gases don’t overheat when used for homes or businesses. The gas is converted to a “frozen” polyethylene product for plastic bag creation.
A Celebratory Conclusion
Is this enough? Are you done yet, or do you want some more? Look, the moral of the story is you need to reuse plastic bags a couple of times if you want to be a Moral Man. There is not sufficient evidence to prove paper or reusable cotton bags are automatically better for the environment. I know you want to go hog-wild at the grocery store tonight and double-wrap some plastic bags and, I, an expert, am giving you full permission to do so. But, and this is imperative, you must correct those militant bag preachers next time they are spitting on your feet outside of Trader Joe’s and, don’t forget, your dumb.
“Well, that about does her, wraps her all up… I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we– aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch ya later on down the trail.” – The Stranger