Denby Fawcett: Reusable bags aren’t as environmentally friendly as you think

I have a tower of shame of reusable shopping bags stacked in the corner of my pantry. My collection started with honor. At the beginning of Oahu’s ban on single-use plastic bags, I bought reusable bags at the grocery store when I forgot to bring a cloth bag from home.

So retailers and nonprofits started giving out bags with their logo printed on them for free to promote their products and their causes.

Soon friends, eager to get rid of their reusable bags, began passing them to me as gift bags containing jars of homemade mango chutney, or leaving them at home after using them as containers for wine contributions to potlucks. My stack has started to multiply exponentially.

On Sunday I took out all the bags from every closet and trunk of the car to take some photos for this column and I found out shamefully that I have 35.

It doesn’t make me feel any better about my bag collection to know that shoplifters apparently love bags. Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii, told me that shoplifting has skyrocketed since the launch of reusable bags. She told me when I called her to ask what reusable bag retailers think.

The thieves steal the merchandise from the shelves and then hide it in a reusable bag so they can claim the merchandise was bought in another store if they are nailed by the store’s security, Yamaki said.

My friend Laurie Carlson agrees that reusable bags are lurking everywhere. “Everyone has a hundred, hidden under the bed. At first the bags seemed like a good idea, but …? ”

You are right. You have to ask yourself. Is it environmentally friendly – to stockpile cloth and polypropylene bags – to have too many to reuse regularly?

Popular wisdom says that reusable bags help the environment, but only if you use them many, many times, you don’t collect them. Or worse, throw them in the trash.

It turns out that seemingly virtuous reusable shopping bags have their environmental benefits but also a big drawback. Everyone knows the benefit of reusable bags: they don’t stick out like fragile single-use plastic bags made of fossil fuels that fly easily through the streets, wash up in the ocean and get stuck in trees, some even get stuck in machinery.

Reusable Bags Denby Fawcett Tote Bags
These are the six canvas bags the author intends to keep after deciding to thin out her collection of 35. Denby Fawcett / Civil Beat / 2022

If they end up as litter, the thin plastic bags won’t biodegrade. And over time they break down into small pieces known as microplastics that can end up in the stomachs of marine animals or in the soil or in the air.

But waste aside, the interesting fact is that the production of single-use plastic bags involves fewer carbon emissions than paper bags and reusable cloth and polypropylene bags that we now take to stores instead of traditional plastic bags.

Paper bags are biodegradable and easier to recycle than single-use plastic bags. In addition, they are useful for composting. But according to a UK study by the Environment Agency, paper bags should be reused at least three times to neutralize the carbon-producing effects needed to produce them. Paper production requires huge amounts of water, chemicals and fertilizers and causes the deforestation of carbon-sequestered trees.

Non-woven polypropylene bags are a common type of reusable bags sold in supermarkets and given away for free to promote products.

It takes less energy to make these durable plastic bags than cotton bags. They are recyclable and sometimes made with recycled products themselves. For example, the blue shopping bags available for purchase at Walmart are made from recycled plastic bottles.

According to the British study I mentioned earlier, polypropylene bags need to be reused at least 11 times to put them on par with single-use plastic bags in terms of the amount of energy used for their production.

Reusable cotton bags are the most energy consuming to produce than reusable bags, as they require large amounts of water, chemical fertilizers and pesticides to protect cotton crops from insects. It is difficult to dispose of the cotton fabric. You cannot put a cotton cloth in the basket. It is difficult to find textile deposits in the textile reuse sector.

The UK study found that a person would have to use a cotton bag at least 131 times to offset the global warming potential of their production costs. And to offset its even higher cost of manufacturing, an organic cotton bag would have to be used many more times to match the environmental costs of single-use plastic bags.

The advantage of cotton bags is that they are sturdy and machine washable, which is an advantage because the reusable bags can harbor harmful bacteria when used to transport food, meat and fish.

Denby Fawcett Reusable Tote Bags
The reusable bags are available in different materials. The New Yorker bag is made of cotton. The IGA is woven polypropylene and Walmart’s is non-woven polypropylene. Denby Fawcett / Civil Beat / 2022

To be clear here, shoppers aren’t entirely responsible for the proliferation of reusable bags. Stores like Whole Foods Market continue to create new and ever prettier bags like the Hawaii-themed bags that tourists and locals alike eagerly buy.

And some bags acquire a street reputation beyond the shopping bag scope, like New Yorker Magazine graphic bags and canvas bags from famous clothing designers. Fashionable totes become must-have items, almost like designer bags.

And to defend the reusable bags, even though their creation costs more energy and resources than conventional plastic bags, according to environmentalist Stuart Coleman, they have significantly reduced waste. Coleman was the Surfrider Foundation’s Hawaii manager for 12 years during which time he conducted more than 150 beach cleanups.

He says that in addition to cigarette butts, plastic bags were the smallest they collected from the beaches, but today the light, flying bags are mostly gone.

Now that I’ve pulled all my bags out of the corners they were tucked into, the shock of seeing the flashlight is pushing an environmentally friendly act. I will donate them all to thrift stores except the six bags I like best. Six bags are really enough for anyone who owns them.

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