NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 30, 2008

Well-meaning companies and consumers are finding that reusable shopping bags, like biofuels, are another area where it's complicated to go green.  If you don't reuse them, you're actually worse off by taking one, says the Wall Street Journal.

Going green in your shopping presents many challenges, among them getting people to actually use the bags; maximizing their benefits requires changing deeply ingrained behavior.  At present, many of the bags go unused -- remaining stashed instead in consumer's closets or in the trunks of their cars.  The biggest challenge, though, is finding a truly green bag, says the Journal:

  • Many of the bags are made from heavier material; they are also likely to sit longer in landfills than their thinner, disposable cousins.
  • Plastic totes may be more eco-friendly to manufacture than ones made from cotton or canvas, which can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes.
  • Many of the cheap, reusable bags that retailers favor are produced in Chinese factories and made from nonwoven polypropylene, a form of plastic that requires about 28 times as much energy to produce as the plastic used in standard disposable bags and eight times as much as a paper sack.
  • Some plastic bags are, in fact, made with recycled materials, and companies are starting to pledge to reduce plastic bag waste.

However, used as they are intended, the totes can be an environmental boon, vastly reducing the number of disposable bags that do wind up in landfills.  If each bag is used multiple times -- at least once a week -- four or five reusable bags can replace 520 plastic bags year, says the Journal.

Source: Ellen Gamerman, "An Inconvenient Bag," Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2008.

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