I remember the baggers at our local supermarket asking my mom this question when I would accompany her on to do the weekly grocery shopping. My mom would answer “paper” and I would cringe knowing that I would have to help maneuver those awkward, then handle-less, bags into the house. Eventually, the bags gained handles but somehow lost quality and the paper bags were inserted into plastic bags for added strength. The paper or plastic question somehow became moot. Fast forward to today and most major supermarket chains don’t even ask the question any longer and simply put our groceries into plastic bags. Though paper bags are still available, often hidden behind the register.
So what gives? Why do we no longer have to choose between paper or plastic? Well, it turns out that paper bags are much more expensive to purchase than plastic bags. And since grocery stores are businesses beholden to shareholders, those savings, which could be as high as $0.23 per bag, add up to big money at the end of the fiscal year. Grocery chains claim that by only offering plastic bags, they can pass these significant savings on to their customers by dropping prices, though this claim remains unproven. In any case, cheaper plastic bags have become ubiquitous.
But even though they are cheaper, should we be using them? And in such large quantities? Here’s the thing, single-use high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bags pose significant problems to the environment, wildlife, and human health through their production, use, and disposal. They can take from 400 to 1,000 years to break down, and their constituent chemicals remain in the environment long after that. It’s estimated that almost 12 million barrels of oil are needed to make the 100 billion plastic bags Americans use annually — that’s more than 330 per person per year, according to Worldwatch Institute, an environmental watchdog group! Some people argue that plastic bags are better because they can be recycled. True, but even though recycling programs exist, most plastic bags are thrown away, clogging landfills, and, with less than one percent of plastic bags being recycled, many enter the water ways eventually killing animals that ingest the plastic debris. Have you heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Eww.
For this reason, many people consider paper bags to be a better option than plastic bags. In fact, in many instances where plastic bags have been banned, paper bags are offered, often with a minimal purchase price. However, from an environmental perspective, paper isn’t the savior we once thought it was. Studies show that the environmental impact of paper bags may be greater than that of the much maligned plastic bag. Life Cycle Assessment studies of paper bags confirm that they have a higher environmental footprint than plastic bags. Further, paper bags use more raw materials (trees!) in their manufacturing than plastic bags making them more costly to produce. And though they will break down in a fraction of the time, they take up more landfill space than plastic bags.
So what about reusable bags? Surely, they MUST be good for the environment, right? In general, reusable bags are going to be your most environmentally sound choice. One single reusable bag could eliminate hundreds of plastic bags. However, depending on the material and number of times the bags is reused, it could still have a fairly large environmental footprint. Some materials are clearly better than others, like organic cotton and hemp. Reusable bags are the most environmentally friendly when they are reused multiple times. According to the UK Environment Agency, a polypropylene bag must be used at least 11 times and a cotton bag must be used at least 131 times in order for them to be effective at reducing your environmental footprint. Despite these drawbacks, reusable bags promote sustainability by conserving resources and landfill space, reduce environmental impacts of air and water pollution, and reduce the impact of litter.
It’s a mixed bag.
Clearly, all bags have their advantages and disadvantages. Paper bags are just as environmentally costly as plastic bags and reusable bags have to be used a significant number of times to be effective. So what can you do? For the answer we must return to the mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (in that order!)
Reduce the number of bags (paper OR plastic) that you use yearly by opting out of bags all together. If you’re purchasing just a few items at a time, simply carry them to your car or home instead of putting them into a bag. This is especially true at convenience stores. Just say "no thanks!" when they offer to bag your hoagie.
Reuse plastic or paper bags by putting them on double duty. Multi-uses of single use items adds up more than you’d think! In our household, plastic bags are used to pick up dog waste and paper bags serve as trash receptacles. Reusable bags (cloth) are the best alternative to the paper or plastic bag, however their EXACT benefits depend on the material of the bag and the number of times it is reused. So make sure you keep them handy (by your keys or in your car) so they are available when you need them. When it doubt, REUSE!
When you’ve exhausted the first two options in the 3Rs Mantra, by all means recycle your bags. Paper bags can be recycled in your household recycling. Many national chain grocery or big box stores offer drop-off sites for plastic bag recycling.
What else can you do?
- Bring your reusable bags to the Swarthmore Farmers Market each week. Keep them handy by your keys or in your car so that they can be grabbed easily when you need them.
- Contribute extra bags to our upcoming bag library. If you just can't wait, you can contribute to the bag library at the Swarthmore Co-op.
- Be mindful of when you need a bag and when you can do without.
What is SFM doing to help?
- We are launching an initiative to reduce the number of plastic bags being used at the market. We are taking a stepwise approach to dealing with this important issue.
- We will be talking to our customers to encourage them to bring their reusable bags to the market each week! Consider this a start of our conversation.
- We will be talking to our vendors to encourage behavior change by asking customers if they would like to use their own bag before automatically bagging their products in their own bags. Blue Mountain Vineyards is exempt since PA liquor laws mandate the practice of bagging liquor.
- We will be starting a Bag Library at the market. Please help us by bringing any extra reusable bags you might have hanging around. If you forget your reusable bag, please grab one and return the favor on another weekly trip!
- Upcoming DIY activities for adults and kids will include “turning an old t-shirt into a bag”.
Finally, support local businesses that sell reusable bags! Luckily, you can find some affordable and super stylish reusable bag options at several of our Town Center merchants!
Left: Swarthmore Co-op reusable bags: Made of ultra-durable polypropylene. This non-woven grocery bag is meant to feel like cloth. Holds 40 lbs. $2 at the Swarthmore Co-op.
Middle: Swarthmore, I Love You Totes: This earth-friendly cotton tote allows you to boldly declare your love for the best town ever for years to come. What more could you ask for? $15 at Compendium.
Right: Baggu tote bag: These stylish top sellers are not just for the grocery store. Carry in your hand or over your shoulder. Holds 2-3 plastic grocery bags worth of stuff. Folds into a flat 5 in. x 5 in. pouch. Holds 50 lbs. $9 at H.O.M in a variety of cool patterns.
As always, thank you for your support and See you at the Market (with your reusable bag, of course!)