Study: Reusable Bags an Environmental Loser

Published March 14, 2011

A new study from the United Kingdom entitled the “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags” is casting doubt on the supposed environmental benefits of reusable shopping bags.

Hundreds of Uses Required
The study, published by the UK Environment Agency, found the potential of reusable shopping bags to benefit the environment depends on how many times they are used before being discarded. Real-world data show the bags are currently harming the environment instead of helping it. 

“Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing the impacts is to reuse it as many times as possible,” the summary states. “The paper, low-density polyethylene (LDPE), non-woven polypropylene and cotton bags should be reused at least three, four, 11 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional high-density polyethylene (HDPE) carrier bags that are not reused.”

In other words: Grocery shoppers must use their cloth bags 131 times to see the environmental benefits of using reuseables that global warming alarmists tout. On top of that, shoppers who reuse their plastic grocery bags aren’t committing the environmental cardinal sin to the level that alarmists claim.

“The reuse of conventional HDPE and other lightweight carrier bags for shopping and as bin liners is pivotal to their environmental performance, and reuse as bin liners produces greater benefits than recycling bags,” the study reads. And reusing a plastic bag just once puts it in the same environmental category as a cotton bag that’s reused 173 times—or, nearly every day for six months.

Plastic Bag Reuse is Common
For some, the study’s conclusions are common sense.

“We know 90 percent of people report to us they reuse their plastic bags,” said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics market at the American Chemistry Council. “This study adds to the long list of studies that show plastic bags are better than many of the alternatives.”

Washing Reusables Harms Environment
Moreover, the UK study did not account for the economic and environmental costs of cleaning reusable shopping bags. Once that’s factored in, Christman said, the touted environmental benefits of reusable bags become even more remote.

“One of the flaws I see in this study is it doesn’t consider the number of times people have to wash their reusable bags,” Christman explained. “We have found high levels of bacteria contamination in reusable bags, … and once you figure in the hot water, the drying,” most of the supposed environmental gain has gone down the drain, even if the bags are used hundreds of times.

Don’t forget, Christman added: “Plastic bags are sanitary.”

Government Ignoring Data
Several cities and jurisdictions around the nation have implemented laws either banning or taxing plastic bags in groceries and other retail stores, citing environmental claims as justification. It’s not justified, says Kathryn Ciano, Warren T. Brookes journalism fellow for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“Bag taxes are just one more way government siphons private dollars out of individuals’ pockets,” said Ciano. “Taxes on plastic bags are not effective for raising revenue or for helping the environment.”

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from northern Virginia.