The level of whining over being told that donating your old clothes to Africans isn’t a righteous act and that you should actually have to pay attention to your actions was….not surprising, but also ridiculous and sad. Folks, the world doesn’t exist to make you feel good about yourselves. It is your responsibility as people who at least claim to be wanting to be doing the right thing to….do the right thing. Unlimited consumption is not consistent with any kind of global perspective that moves toward justice. Obviously many of you understand this and expressed that in the comments. But some were pretty hostile.
If you’re trying to contribute as little as possible to the two global calamities of climate change and the swirling gyres of forever-materials slowly filling our oceans, there’s a useful formula to keep in mind: Use fewer things, many times, and don’t buy new ones.
But are plastic bags better or worse than paper? And what about a cotton tote? Let’s rip this bandaid off right away: There’s no easy answer.
To understand the impact of reusable bags on the environment, one has to hold two very different things in mind. One: Plastic bags do not biodegrade and are stuffing the oceans, marine life, and our food supply with plastic bits. Two: Considering all the other environmental impacts besides litter, a cotton tote or a paper bag may be worse for the environment than a plastic one.
In a 2018 life-cycle assessment, Denmark’s ministry of environment and food agreed with previous similar studies, finding that classic plastic shopping bags have the least environmental impact. This assessment does not take marine litter into account—so as far as that gigantic problem is concerned, plastics are almost certainly the worst, since they don’t break down on a timescale meaningful to human or animal life.
But when taking into account other factors, like the impact of manufacturing on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution, and human toxicity, those classic, plastic shopping bags are actually the most benign of the current common options.
Cotton bags must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags—and, the Denmark researchers write, organic cotton is worse than conventional cotton when it comes to overall environmental impact. According to the report, organic cotton bags have to be reused many more times than conventional cotton bags (20,000 versus 7,000 times), based on the assumption that organic cotton has a 30% lower yield rate on average than conventional cotton, and therefore was assumed to require 30% more resources, like water, to grow the same amount.
Even adjusting for the benefits of organic cotton production—like less fertilizer and pesticide use (and therefore less eutrophication and water contamination caused by growing it)—conventional cotton came out on top.
The report also assumed the cotton could not be recycled, since very little infrastructure exists for textile recycling.
With plastic bag bans soaring in popularity globally (127 countries have adopted plastic bag restrictions, and New York just passed one this week), the question of what will replace plastic bags has become more pressing. We know that single-use anything is a terrible idea, whether it is plastic or not, so replacing plastic bags with paper ones will surely have deleterious side-effects like increasing deforestation. Making a paper bag also requires more energy and water than making a plastic bag, so for other environmental considerations besides litter, paper products may be worse than plastic ones.
You can’t handwave away the lack of proper disposal for plastic bags. This is a huge problem and is especially so in poorer parts of the world. But we can’t just close our eyes to how other forms of consumption are also problematic. Nope, there’s no easy answer here. There never is under a capitalist system. Part of being an adult person in the world should be understanding that and trying to come up with better solutions, weighing various factors and trying to make the best decision possible. Since most of us don’t have all the answers, we shouldn’t be upset when we read something that goes against what we have thought in the past. Just because something is a norm among liberal consumers does not inherently make it a good thing.