Your cotton tote is pretty much the worst replacement for a plastic bag
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.
The technical name for the wispy plastic bags, like the ones you might get at the grocery store or deli, are low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bags.
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