Are Single-Use Plastic Bags Really Better for the Environment?


A new study highlighting several unexpected consequences of single-use bag bans has some people wondering if these policies are really the best choice for the environment. Could it be that single-use plastic bags are actually better than some of the proposed alternatives?

Well … yes and no, actually.

The uncertainty of this issue highlights the fact that it’s incredibly hard to do the right thing, and sometimes you have to make the best of several bad choices with as much information to inform your decision as you can locate.

In this case, researchers found that when people banned single-use plastic bags, the purchase of garbage bags went up — likely because people needed a replacement for the single-use bags they were using as bathroom trash bin liners, dog poop collection bags and more. Trash bags are heavier and use more resources than single-use bags, making it a really unfortunate tradeoff.

As a Care2 reader, you probably know why plastic bags are bad, but we’ll go over the basics again just in case. First of all, they’re made from fossil fuels, which are extracted using environmentally destructive methods. Second of all, they’re extremely hard to recycle. Not all facilities take them, and in fact plastic bags mixed in with regular recycling can foul up equipment and cause problems at recycling plants.

Plastic bags are also prone to blowing away at many points along their journey, and that leaves them tumbling through nature. It can take hundreds of years for them to break down, releasing harmful chemicals along the way.

Recently, we’ve seen several disturbing and heartbreaking stories about whales who die with clogged masses of plastic bags in their stomachs, highlighting the big stakes of this issue.

In response, some communities have started to push the use of paper bags as a replacement for single-use plastic. But as it turns out, from the environmental footprint standpoint, paper is actually worse than plastic – a lot worse, though some kinds of paper are better than others.

Paper requires more resources to make — and if it ends up in landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas. Not a great turn of affairs — though to paper’s credit, no whales are washing ashore with paper bags in their stomachs.

Others are promoting reusable bags, which seem like the obvious solution here: Any time you can, you should use an item you already have — whether it’s reusing containers at the grocery store’s bulk bin or carrying your groceries in a reusable bag. Some reusable bags are even made from recycled materials. My grocery store sells feed bags that have been converted into grocery totes, for example.

Unfortunately, many reusable bags are also extremely resource-intensive to produce. If you look just at environmental footprint, that nice cotton tote is more destructive than a single-use plastic bag, and it might take hundreds of uses to offset.

There’s another way: Bags designed to be compostable, though they don’t necessarily always work that way in practice.

There are already some compostable bags on the market, and more are showing up all the time — though they can be a little pricey. But for something like picking up dog feces, where you really do need a baggie and you definitely do not want to reuse it, they’re incredibly useful. The environmental footprint of compostable products is also quite variable, depending on the materials and where you live.

Are plastic bags better for the environment? The first question should probably be “better than what?” — but the answer is most likely “no,” with some caveats. In the debate about single-use bags and products in general, consumption should be foregrounded. If you purchase less stuff, you’ll have less of an impact on the environment. When you have to purchase stuff, consider reusing bags and containers, skipping a bag altogether or choosing the most ethical option available.

This study illustrates that these decisions are never simple — and that when communities pass policies like single-use plastic bag bans, they should try to think out and preempt potential consequences. For example, stores could be encouraged to stock biodegradable trash bags or an exemption to the bag ban could be made for biodegradable bags so stores can meet the needs of customers and the environment at the same time. Or community groups could encourage periodic “buy nothing days” to cut down on consumption and encourage people to consolidate trips to the store, cutting down on waste.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Rachel Chea