A Surprising Twist to the Grocery Bag Debate

May 18th, 2012 BY ChrisD | No Comments
paper shopping bag

It’s no secret that plastic grocery bags have a negative environmental impact. Production involves the use of petroleum. The bags don’t break down because of the lack of organic material. Many communities don’t accept them for curbside recycling. However, they may not be as bad as many believe.

Production Costs
To truly assess its environmental cost means beginning at production. A study by the American Chemistry Council analyzed the impact of paper, polyethylene plastic and compostable plastic bags. Researchers considered fossil fuel use, municipal solid waste, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage.

Not surprisingly, paper bags used the most energy to produce 1,000 bags. They used over 25 percent additional energy than compostable bags and a whooping 340 percent more than polyethylene plastic bags. The breakdown of energy costs yielded some interesting results.

Overall, compostable bags produced more fossil fuel emissions and used more fresh water. Polyethylene bags, on the other hand, produced the least amount of fossil fuel emissions and water usage. Of the three types of grocery bags, polyethylene bags were the clear green choice.

The Take on Cloth Bags
A popular alternative to plastic bags are cloth bags. They offer several advantages because they are reusable and help you cut down on the waste your household generates. However, it is just this quality that adds a surprising twist to whether they truly are the better choice.

In 2010, members of a girls soccer team fell ill with a foodborne illness called norovirus. It is the main cause of these types of conditions in the United States. After much detective work, the source of the virus was eventually traced to a reusable cloth grocery bag.

The bag became contaminated by airborne pathogens when the bag was taken into a restroom. The other girls consumed food that was in the bag and became infected. It is the first documented case of a virus transmission via an inanimate object.

In terms of environmental impact, using cloth bags carries another cost. To prevent similar cases, bags need to be washed regularly, which adds to its carbon footprint. It also makes a strong case for sticking with one-time use plastic bags, especially when you recycle them at your grocery store.

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