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Plastic vs. Paper Grocery Bags vs ... Cloth Bags

Unfortunately, the calculation regarding cloth bags is not so simple.  Like
any reusable package or product, they must be *actually* used multiple
times in lieu of their disposable counterparts if the environmental
advantages are to be realized.  In simple terms, if you buy a cloth bag and
use it a few times and then switch back to disposable bags because you've
misplaced the cloth bag or simply keep forgetting to bring it to the
grocery store, you are worse off in environmental terms than if you only
used disposable bags from the beginning.  This is because the reusable bag
is heavier than the disposable bag and therefore uses more material per
quantity of groceries conveyed than the equivalent disposable bag.  (In
this discussion, I'm assuming that weight of material used is an adequate
proxy for environmental impact.)

On a more complex level, cotton production is not an especially sustainable
agricultural activity, making the comparison between cotton, paper and
plastic more difficult.

NONETHELESS, there is a simple and unambiguous way to make a better
environmental choice: re-use whatever bag you start with.  Use the paper or
plastic or cloth bag more than once (and thereby avoid using a new bag).
It is by avoiding the production of an additional (new) bag that the
disproportionate share of environmental impacts are avoided.

For a summary of some Dutch research on the role of consumer choice in life
cycle impact of products (that also corroborates the points made by Rich
Denison in an earlier posting on this topic), see Helias Udo de Haes's
column on LCA in Europe, "LCA Can Be Very Relaxed..." JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL
ECOLOGY  1(4):3-5.

Reid Lifset
Yale Program on Solid Waste Policy

At 03:08 PM 2/18/99 -0500, you wrote:
>I am posting the following message for a colleague
>-----Original Message-----
>From: Heather A. Bouch (610) 832-6021	[mailto:BOUCH.HEATHER@a1.pader.gov] 
>Sent: Wednesday, February 17, 1999 12:40 PM  To: Hollash, JoAnne
>Subject: RE: FW: FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Plastic vs. Paper Grocery Bags
>USE REUSABE CLOTH BAGS (made from a renewable fiber resource!)  Little waste
>created in the manufacture and possibly washing.  Just take your own bags to
>the store!  If the thing wears out, compost it.  
> Problem solved.  Simple math.  Am I missing some complex equations?

Program on Solid Waste Policy
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Yale University
205 Prospect Street
New Haven,CT 06511-2189  USA
203-432-3253 (telephone)
203-432-5912 (fax)