The question of banning plastic shopping bags is on the agenda in Campbell River, but would the move be good, ecologically speaking? The answer is “Don’t ask me.” The junk does have some benefits and is hard to avoid.
Honestly, the more I hear, the more confused I get. We are now being told plastic bags are less harmful to the environment, especially if people use them to line garbage cans. So say journalists and publications from across the political spectrum. Somehow, this all seems counter-intuitive, which some of the writers have admitted.
I wonder, though, how many have bothered to question the studies? I looked at a couple of prominent ones. I should say my aim is not to debunk these; I have neither the time nor the academic background to examine the methodology – i.e., do these properly account for the effects of the hydrocarbons all the way back to extraction or simply from the point that plastic becomes a byproduct from some other resource extraction? I can’t say for sure, or whether it should be, but it seems like a question to address up front.
One of these, a UK government study from 2011, says to ensure lower global warming potential, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) bags should be reused four times compared with 131 times for cotton bags. The study does point to some things it does not take into account, e.g. “any adverse impacts of degradable polymers in the recycling stream.” Take that, marine life! Earlier this year, a Danish university study echoed the conclusions, though with even more logic-defying numbers: paper bags should be reused 43 times to equal the climate change effects on the LDPE bags. For cotton bags, the number inflates to 149 times for climate change and 20,000 when considering “all other indicators” of the environment. For conventional cloth bags, the numbers are 52 and 7,100 times, respectively.
Do these two studies support each other? Hmmm. For one thing, they’re not consistent on the benefits of paper bags. Maybe every word is true, but if you know how academia works, you should ask whether they were published in peer-reviewed journals (doesn’t look like it) or who the authors are. In the Danish one, the “editors” are from an university environmental engineering department, but it was published by the government rather than in an academic journal, and the review was done by a consulting firm.
In the UK study, also a government document, there is no info about the authors. One works for a large environmental consulting firm whose clients are major corporations. I can find nothing on the other, except that the person might be a design specialist with a business in sustainable packaging. Honestly, it’s not clear. On top of this, the review team looks like it’s from retail or environmental/business consulting rather than academia.
We should question our assumptions that one material or method is superior to another, e.g. by accounting the enormous resources needed to produce materials like cotton. However, one thing keeps nagging me. According to these studies’ logic, we should be ditching our cotton clothing, such as the blue jeans I’m wearing now, and choosing disposable single-use clothes, maybe even plastic garb. I could be wrong, but that just seems like so much waste.