This pertains to the growing movement around the country to pass legislation banning “single-use grocery bags,” including, more recently, in our local towns of Westerly and Stonington [“Westerly council adopts ordinance banning single-use plastic bags,” Westerly Sun of April 24]. It’s my belief that the wholesale banning of plastic bags wouldn’t be the best course of action toward lessening our negative impact on our environment. The goal could perhaps instead be to urge or see that our local stores offer biodegradable bags, exclusively.
First, it’s not well known but plastic bags and paper bags are equally tough on the environment. At best. Most sources weigh in with paper bags being actually harder on our natural world than plastic. Because paper bags are made from wood, a renewable resource, the inclination is that they’re rather environmentally-friendly. Scientists from organizations such as the Environmental Literacy Council and Stanford University have determined that regular Wal-Mart and Stop & Shop-type plastic bags leave smaller carbon footprints in being created than the production of paper bags, and much smaller than reusable cloth bags. The latter does break even with plastic bags after its approximate 131st toting of groceries (varies a bit depending on the source), while “it takes three reuses of a paper bag to neutralize its environmental impact, relative to plastic” as asserted in Stanford University Magazine of August 2017. So if the mitigation of global warming is a chief concern, then plastic should be the go-to choice over paper. (There’s also a study with similar results done by a Canadian environmental organization at www.bagtheban.com.) But with plastic bags banned, all purchases needing bagging — whether due to the increasingly popular pick-up service or simply forgetful or flawed tote bag-less shoppers — will be placed in the equal or greater environmentally non-benign paper bags.
Also, many of us do in fact reuse our single-use grocery store bags. I know of many who use their plastic bags for their cat litter cleaning, as doggie bags, for dirty diaper disposal, backpacked-gym clothes, grease disposal, dried up paint, and other post-consumer waste. As a personal anecdote, our household’s grocery store bags see a second life as kitchen trash bags/liners. Having done this always and knowing how well it works, it’s heartening to hear recently of others doing same. For those unfamiliar, a standard grocery store-issued plastic bag(s) fits perfectly over a 9- to 13-gallon-sized trash bin, such as the kind that rests in a pull-out trash drawer. Voila, instant and free kitchen trash bin liners! All of these repurposing practices work toward weakening the ironic cycle of buying still mostly non-biodegradable kitchen garbage bags, such as Glad or Hefty, and, insult to injury, adding the glossy cardboard boxes in which they’re packaged to our waste stream. Even recycling these kitchen bag boxes still costs us (often local governments) and the earth energy and emission usage.
Given the impracticality and environmental costs of paper bags alone as the in-store offering (whether free or fee), plastic bags are not so easily discarded from the conversation, but especially if they can be done so literally. And that’s what a biodegradable plastic bag can do … naturally. Yes, they do need to be handled as a compostable material but it is a major step in the right direction. It also doesn’t punish retailers, some already operating on the margins, via the increased cost — actual as well as cashier-related — for paper bags.
In that vein of consideration for others with more skin in the game, it’s documented that most cashiers prefer working with and bagging plastic bags over any other. Paper bags are cumbersome to open and dry out hands. Tote bags are less problematic but also contribute to slower bagging and repetitive-motion carpal-tunnel issues. Some cashiers also find handling people’s dirty reusable bags distasteful and possibly even hazardous to their health. These realities are also important. And they’re an additionally significant reason for pushing for biodegradable plastic bags. Even if the higher cost needs to be passed on to us consumers, what else is new in the business world? Even if it requires an amendment to any implemented local ordinances banning particular bags. Carry on ... happily biodegradable.