Archive for December, 2016

Tote bags vs. plastic bags, and the overall impact of consumer plastic use

In response to my post on the effects of plastic bag bans (Edit: which addresses various different types of environmental impact, like pollution), reader Veronica Skowronski pointed me at this Atlantic article on whether tote bags are good for the environment (Edit: which is focused on energy consumption in particular).  The article cites various evidence that reusable grocery tote bags often don’t get reused enough to save more resources than they consume — especially the fancier ones that have gotten popular recently.  In fact, tote bags have gotten more ubiquitous, to the point that people are accumulating and even throwing them away, but polls show they’re very rarely used.  And plastic bags do actually have the smallest footprint to produce and distribute — compared to paper or various tote materials — even though they’re slowest to biodegrade.  The article’s conclusion?

So long as their owners don’t throw them away, [tote bags’] negative impact remains minimized, at least—they might yet be used 327 times. Ecologically speaking, the best practice for tote bags might be one of two extremes: use them all the time, or not at all.

I personally don’t ever invest in buying new totes… I carry around a bunch of tote bags in my trunk that I got at conferences, conventions, or other events where they were giving them away free — they were generally not intended for groceries (and say a funny assortment of things like Grace Hopper, NSF, or Sherlock Seattle :) ), but they serve that purpose fine. I realize this is not an option all shoppers will have access to, but it’s a thought for those of you with spare totes sitting around from similar events.

The Atlantic article also points out that this is far from the only case where the desired goal of helping the environment leads people to do things that are actually less effective — or where people analyze only the small picture and not the whole ecosystem:

This low-grade, unfocused mania for averting impending ecological disaster seems to be more harmful than helpful, which is a problem throughout popular environmentalism. Meat eaters decry the water usage demands of almond groves. Conscientiously piled garbage overflows from public trashcans to rot in the street. Studies show that Kenya-grown roses flown to England have a lower carbon footprint than those grown and shipped from Holland, that it’s less ecologically damaging for Americans east of the Mississippi to import wine from France than from California. Biodegradable plastics proliferate as single-use containers and utensils, greenly filling the demand for disposable goods rather than questioning it. Fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and trucks are considered, barely, but not those of oil tankers, container ships, military escapades, which can produce tens of millions of times the amount of carbon.

With that in mind, I wondered whether or not consumer plastic use (including plastic bags) actually constitutes a very large portion of plastic use overall.  Maybe corporate plastic (re)use renders individual actions relatively small impact?

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