Study: Reusable Bags Must Be Used 131 Times To Overcome Environmental Costs

220px-Trash_bin_in_ParisThere is an interesting study by the U.K. Environment Agency that challenges the view of banning plastic bags is clearly better for the environment. Sometimes green measures can have hidden carbon costs or negative externalities. The study suggests that a cotton reusable bag commonly used for groceries must be used at least 131 times to overcome their costs and be a net positive for the environment. Los Angeles recently added its name to the list of cities banning free polypropylene bags. Customers must pay 10 cents a bag or bring a reusable bag.

Conversely, a polypropylene bag must be used 11 times to overcome their costs, though that would seem unlikely. Yet, many of the reusable bags are made in China or Vietnam and subject to fuel costs and pollution in transporting them to customers. They are “energy intensive materials” to manufacture.

I still see the value of limiting single use bags which have adverse effects for marine ecosystems, solid waste management, global resource consumption and litter. Only 5 percent of these bags are recycled. Paper bags of course result in huge use of trees that can be avoided with reusable bags.

While I love the convenience of plastic bags, I have been trying to limit my use of the bags. The important thing about this study, however, should not be ignored. Sometimes green measures can be satisfying but actually can raise environmental costs.

45 thoughts on “Study: Reusable Bags Must Be Used 131 Times To Overcome Environmental Costs”

  1. How many of us got “forced” into the lightbulb fiasco before LED LIGHTS? I went back to a gas guzzler after driving a Leaf for three years….loved that I only paid electricity….but looked at the true cost of the car and its production and disposal carbon costs…so much more…false economy even with hydro power. Cold weather? Big drop in max distance and fast chargers far between. The production and install cost of those chargers is huge and often broken.

  2. @squeek

    Love it! Chatter sez she is very ill. Cannot verify any real information though. Guess time will tell. Recycle HRC? Certainly fits the definition of old bag, but I doubt she is biodegradeable.

  3. @squeek

    re: “Sooo, yeah among the college-educated white folks, things look pretty rosy overall”

    Disagree my friend, things are NOT rosy at all. good jobs are hard to find – wages are low, benefits are fewer and many people have major debt from college or medical bills. I have several friends with PhDs who are adjuncts with 0 hope of ever even being on tenure track.

    People are hurting, sales taxes, insurance and other fees seem to increase yearly. Here in SC our electric rates go up every year.

    This is precisely why people gravitated to Bernie (now Jill) and Trump. We all agree that the status quo must change.

    I read that Atlantic article too – as well as “Nickled and Dimed” – we need serious change!

  4. I’ve been using the same cloth bags for several years. I’m sure I’m getting close to that 131 uses if I haven’t already surpassed it. Besides grocery shopping I also use them for hauling food in when we camp, taking food to pitch-in meals and other events. They hold more groceries than those little plastic bags and are more reliable. Small items do not dribble out of holes in them while crossing the parking lot and the flimsy handles don’t tear off before you get to the car.

  5. re: “I still see the value of limiting single use bags which have adverse effects for marine ecosystems, solid waste management, global resource consumption and litter. Only 5 percent of these bags are recycled.”

    I agree with limiting the use of these bags although like Squeeky I use them for my cat litter. But I could always use newspaper.

    Growing up in Germany I was used to paying for a bag and they were very sturdy plastic bags. Still, most folks would bring cloth bags or wicker baskets when shopping for food and drink. Cloth bags are better than synthetic bags as they can be washed in hot water to get rid of bacteria.

    Germany is crazy about recycling – even in the 1970s every small village had a place to recycle glass and cans. Now all waste is sorted – paper, food, plastic, metal and glass.

    I think it’s a matter of people getting used to the idea of recycling where it becomes mainstream. Kinda like smoking indoors at businesses or restaurants which is now no longer acceptable in much of the U.S.

  6. @Sandi

    I don’t put up a tree every year as I don’t have kids. But when I do I pull out my Evergleam – a 4 foot tall aluminum tree my parents bought back in the 1960s. So no lights obviously, but it is really pretty. After Xmas it goes back in its box. Love that tree! =)

  7. @IsaacB

    Yes, Isaac. . .if we only give more money to the government then every thing will be just peachy! Because there is a group of wonderfully intelligent people who work for the government, who know better than us about everything! And if we give them more money, they can just return us all to The Garden of Evil.

    I am guess that you about 60ish years old, and grew up watching television shows since the 1950s and 60s where wonderfully smart and tolerant white people like The Saint, Papa Cartwright, The Man From Uncle, and John and Emma, saved the world from disaster in 50 or so minutes, and then had time for dinner, with steak, and a nice wine, with time to close the bedroom door for a good romp in the hay!

    In other words, you probably grew up watching unrealistic stuff, just like the rest of us, only being older, you are more mentally damaged by it. It’s understandable. I have watched women from Lucy Lawless to Maggie Q clobber big old men in fist fights. But, I know that is just TV garbage, sooo I pack a 5 shot 38 in my purse.

    The government gets plenty of money, which it proceeds to waste on silly crap. It has been doing it in spades since the 1960s, and it is still never enough. Because we are an unrealistic people. It is partially a result of having our heads buried in TV, I think, Trillions on anti-poverty programs, and we still have the ‘hood, for example. We spend more per student than anybody, and our kids come out illiterate twits.

    Denmark, for example, can fix most of its problems, because Denmark does not have an unlimited budget. It doesn’t get to have financial ADHD and pass this law, and spend that money, in a wild orgy. The United States meanwhile, will never really fix nothing because we are unrealistic, and we just paint it over with more money because a new government program can fix anything! Isn’t it interesting that we call them, “programs.”???

    Plus, what you call “crap food” is a staple in the hood. You are also betraying your White Privilege.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  8. Hey Scott, Michael Crichton was very eloquent and precise. I’m saving this one.

  9. Folks, just use common sense. When you go shopping, if you don’t already have your own reusable bag(s), then simply use the store’s own corrugated boxes. Smart stores already provide these boxes, from their own incoming shipments of food, wine, supplies, etc. They are easier to carry, can be reused many times, and are readily recyclable. If you absolutely must take bags, the plastic ones are actually the more environmental friendly–IF you use them over again. I always save these bags and there are plenty of circumstances that arise where I get to reuse them, including as inserts for trash or garbage. I find that brown bags aren’t nearly as versatile for reuse. So again, stick with the boxes if you can. You don’t want to start a bag collection at home. See, you too can be a “Heloise” if you put your mind to it.

  10. Squeaky

    If a crap tax was imposed then the only people who would suffer would be those who ate a lot of crap. If that forced people to cut down on the cheetos, twinkles, and busweiser then perhaps the medical costs would drop as well. The crap tax could be applied to social costs beginning with medical. This does no harm to the poor. The revenue from the crap tax could also be applied to making nutritious food cheaper and more available. The fact that you can buy beer for less than $1 a bottle in the US is not a sign of affluence, freedom, a superior culture. It is a sign of a lost opportunity. The only reason that alcohol is not taxed more in the US is the booze lobby. Most other more advanced nations tax booze and gasoline and then use the revenue for the common good like cheaper and better medical and better public transportation. Americans are still in the mindset of Fort Apache.

    Adding a ten percent tax to gasoline would still keep gas prices well lower than what they were a few years ago and well below the cost of gas in other countries. Gas is double+ in Canada what it is here. Canadians do just fine. The lower gas prices and booze prices in the US remind one of the cheap table wine and tobacco that royalty maintained for the masses in France before the revolution. Our cheap gas and booze keep us dumbed down.

    The cost of treating waste in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, where they are far more restricted as to what they can do with their waste is partially offset by the energy they get from using filtered waste as fuel. The cost of dissecting the loads that come to the dump is offset by taxes on the goods that produce the waste. One phenomenon that has surfaced in the past fifty years in the US and other countries is the amount of packaging used for items. I have been going to building supply and hardware stores for the past fifty + years. What used to be available as an item now comes in multiple layers of plastic packaging. There might be some efficiency here but there is a lot of waste. The cost of housing and such would not rise if excessively packaged goods were taxed a little more and the revenue used to address the landfills.

    What it all comes down to is fine tuning. The landfills are a potential source of energy but in the US and affluent countries a landfill is nothing more than garbage on a thousand year plan to return to the earth, or not. Increased recycling costs money and we don’t want to pay for it, so we dump. Reduced packaging would perhaps make purchasing our toys a little less delightful but we can dump the stuff so what do we care. The West, lead by the US lead the world in irresponsibility because its back is not up against the wall and corporations are protected from social concerns.

    Now the excessive packaging sickness in the Far East is eclipsing that of the West. The great islands of garbage floating in the Pacific is primarily composed of the excessive packaging used to market stuff to poorer nations. Poor people in Indonesia, the Philippines, etc cannot afford to buy a 5 lb bag of something so they buy 5 one lb bags over the same time it takes to use it and the result is four times the packaging. This is so with everything from nutritious food to crap like soda, candy, etc. They have a similar out of sight out of mind attitude as we do but instead of landfills they use the Pacific Ocean. Back in 1969 I spent seven weeks out in the middle of the North Pacific on Weather Station Papa, on a Canadian Coast Guard Weather Ship, the Quadra. A thousand miles out there were small clumps of plastic garbage. At that time it was us. Now it is the poorer and ascending nations. The culprit has always been us as we do little to nothing to control the beast. Imagine a waste control industry, the jobs, the benefits……

    In the end the global corporations and the consumer sucking on a bud won’t do anything about it. The only way to deal with this is to impose regulations on the global concerns in the form of taxes, use the taxes to clean up and recycle, and thereby reduce our filth. If there truly is a concern to keep costs down then good old human ingenuity will find a way, but typically not until it is forced to or until its back is against the wall. The example is the US. Look at the deplorable state of politics and government in this country. Our backs aren’t up against the wall in this area, yet.

  11. I bought an artificial tree when one year every branch was empty of all greenery. The second one was from Frontgate, more expensive, but prewired with lights. We’ve had this for at least ten years. Paying more for good quality does make a difference. Tree farms are all over CT, where we lived for ten years. We walked all over, cut ours down, hauled it to pay, for more money they wrapped it so it was easier to put on the car. Drove home, rescued it from the car, put it in a bucket of water. We were exhausted. Those commercials of families doing this are garbage. Putting lights on took all,of next day, with pauses to quit speaking to each other. Never again. We roll out the covered artificial, that looks as real as any real tree I’ve seen. Fluff the branches, put on decorations. Happier time by far. And it provides jobs. Growing trees requires far less manpower.

  12. @Karen S

    I think a lot of this stuff is just a rip-off. I just paid $9.99 for four 40 watt bulbs of the new sort. Hmmm. The extra ($5) money I paid goes to General Electric, who pays politicians to write laws that require the new bulbs, and an end to the cheaper bulbs. I wonder if there could be a connection??? No, of course not. I must be paranoid.

    The point being, I can afford the extra money. But there are a lot of people out there for whom the extra $5.00 here and there adds up, and they have to do without things.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  13. Riesling – good idea about the ironing. That reminds me of how they would iron letters from victims of TB in the old days.

  14. @IsaacB

    You said, “The bottom line is that we could easily afford to pay ten to twenty percent more for our basics and use the money to clean this pig pen up.”

    Methinks that you betray your class bias. Here is real life for a lot of people:

    The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

    Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent.

    It’s even worse for the barefoot and pregnant women on the Democratic Plantation:

    Women of all races bring home less income and own fewer assets, on average, than men of the same race, but for single black women the disparities are so overwhelmingly great that even in their prime working years their median wealth [net worth] amounts to only $5.

    Sooo, yeah among the college-educated white folks, things look pretty rosy overall. Why, a 20% increase in the cost of basics is chump change if you have a good government job! Or one of those jobs which is massively supported by government money and anti-competitive regulations, like medicine. Yes, those kind of people can just go buy a new hybrid! Or hire an illegal alien to do their grunt work! ( like Meg Whitman!)

    Which is why nothing will change much in America unless we have a meteor strike, a super volcano, a few nukes in big cities, massive and prolonged financial depression, or the savage hordes in the inner cities bust out into the bedroom communities (deprived of weaponry) to sack, pillage, rape and loot to their heart’s delight.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  15. Isaac:

    “The trees and other cellulose materials are typically farmed for the purpose and maintain the environment. Tree farms do not use pesticides, fertilizers and the like. A farm is logged and immediately after new seedlings are planted. The use of hemp for paper products would also help wean us off of plastic. The paper based products are far better for the environment.”

    Thanks for the information. I knew about monoculture tree farms, but not that they were the main source for paper. I thought it was made out of any sawdust created from milling, and was a means to prevent it from going to waste. But I do not know very much about paper manufacturing. Tree farms not only help keep us from harvesting old growth forests, but it’s a crop that generates oxygen and cleans our atmosphere while it’s growing. That’s why I prefer farmed Christmas trees over the plastic ones that are created using a slew of chemicals which offers in our homes and just look tacky. OK, the modern ones look a lot better than the 1970s plastic trees, but still. I look at it as just another crop that benefits the atmosphere, although it does use a lot of water resources. Of course, deserts do not utilize much water to sustain its meagre life, but they do not produce much oxygen, either. As long as it’s not farmed in a drought area, tree farms are a beneficial industry.

    And in my opinion, hemp is as close to a panacea agricultural product as possible. I sometimes use hemp milk as a protein source in my smoothies, and sometimes add hemp powder. It can be eaten, made into clothing, paper, was the best rope ever used in sailing, and I recall hearing it was made into some sort of composite like plywood at a one point. Plus, it’s not a drug and can never, ever make you high. It’s only downside is that since it is closely related to pot, it would drive our law enforcement bonkers trying to decide if massive acreage is just hemp, or if it conceals pot, too. That’s why we can’t grow it here but must import it from Canada. I hope one day this wonderful crop will be permitted to our own farmers to grow.

    Darren – I just thought of something. Since hemp is so closely related to pot, can it lead to a false positive? That would cause issues, since it’s a common health food.

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