Everything You Should Know About Modern Shopping Bags
Walter Deubner ran a small grocery story in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1912. He noticed that his customers were limited in how much they could purchase because they had no way of transporting their goods home. This got him thinking: If he could come up with a solution, he could get more business.
Although paper bags have existed since 1852, that year—1912—Deubner invented the first paper shopping bag with handles. His prefabricated bag, with a cord running through it to lend strength, would allow customers to carry up to 75 pounds of merchandise. He called it the Deubner Shopping Bag and sold it for five cents. By 1915, he had acquired a patent for it and was soon selling millions of them, especially with the rise of the self-service grocery store.
So was the advent of the modern shopping bag. Mr. Deubner apparently still works in a grocery store in St. Paul…according to his Facebook page.
Paper, plastic, or other? Do you remember carrying groceries home in paper bags? Do you use a reusable bag these days? We will cover all three types focusing mainly on plastic bags and all the pros and cons; but first I want to target your attention on the shopping bag from a different perspective, one that has everything to do with its environmental impact.
In only 100 years of evolution the modern shopping has become a metaphor for environmental global issues. This is what I wish for you to notice throughout the discussion. See in the information presented how central the concerns of the shopping bag are to the main issues of global sustainability.
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Plastic Shopping Bags
The modern plastic shopping bag was patented in 1965 and introduced to U.S. supermarkets in 1977. Some retailers, including JC Penney and Sears, had been using plastic since the mid-70’s; but the bags became popular when grocery giants Kroger and Safeway implemented their use in the early 80’s.
Since then they have captured more than 80 percent of the grocery and convenience store market.
The plastic shopping bag was inevitable for a few reasons. They are cheap —they cost one cent to produce; paper bags cost four cents. They are lightweight and efficient —they weigh not more than five grams but can carry 17 pounds. They are less voluminous —they require about a tenth of the space paper does. They are environmentally better to produce —40 percent less energy, 80 percent less solid waste, 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions, and 94 percent fewer waterborne wastes than paper. They are fully recyclable .
Environmental Impact of Plastic Bags
But before we run off with these favorable stats, let’s look at the tradeoffs.
It is estimated that up to 1 trillion plastic shopping bags are used annually worldwide. The U.S. International Trade Commission has reported that the number of bags used each year in the U.S. is about 102 billion. Undoubtedly, this level of consumption takes a huge toll on the environment.
Consider these facts: 1—It takes about 12 million barrels of oil to produce the plastic bags used in the U.S. annually. Approximately 25 percent of the bags used in the West are made in Asia , requiring even more fuel for transport. 2—Plastic creates four times the solid waste of paper bags. They use less solid waste to produce but create far more waste due to the size of their consumption—enough to fill the Empire State Building 2½ times a year. 3—The average family uses nearly 1,500 plastic bags each year and less than one percent of those bags are ever recycled. 4—Plastic bags kill marine life by strangulation or through ingestion, both leading to starvation. Further, they wrap around ship propellers and get sucked into boat engines; and they make up nine percent of debris found along U.S. coasts. 5—They don’t degrade well…so let’s talk about that.
Composition and Degradability of Plastic Bags
Plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene resin. You may recognize its code: HDPE. The ethylene in this compound is a derivative of natural gas and petroleum. This resin is most often of virgin materials, but there are also recycled resins that are significantly cheaper to use and more beneficial to the environment.
The real problem with plastic bags is the degrading factor. Despite fuss over the use of the word biodegradable, the evidence speaks the loudest: plastic bags take 450-1,000 years to fully degrade.
What happens with a plastic bag is it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces; and after a while those pieces begin to leach toxic chemicals into the soil and bodies of water. Even worse, these chemicals enter the food chain. The finest particles affect filter feeders at the lowest level of the food chain and now get passed up the chain through fish and marine life into humans.
Manufacturers have begun introducing truly biodegradable plastic made from cornstarch, soy beans, and other plant-based materials, as well as degradable plastics with chemical additives that speed degradation.
But herein a problem is discovered.
Degradable bags—even paper bags—don’t decompose in landfills, which are usually lined with clay and plastic and sealed from water, light, oxygen, and other factors that assist decomposition. This is all done to prevent materials from leaching into the environment. So the way it looks, this is a problem going nowhere, or one merely covered up, until municipalities and governments step up recycling measures and other actions that will offset the demand for plastic bags.
Recycling and the Battle for Reduction
There is some good news. First, all types of plastic shopping bags can be recycled. Second, more than 90 percent of Americans actually reuse their plastic bags. Third, recycling is steadily increasing. Fourth, there is a very high demand for plastic materials.
Recycled plastic bags are worth about $400 per ton, so increasing recycling is a grand opportunity for retailers and municipalities. Most of the energy used to make plastic bags are retained in the bags themselves (the reason why it takes a bag a millennium to degrade); but when bags are recycled that energy is available for the new product.
Recycled bags are used to make an array of products: shopping carts, pallets, laundry baskets, speed bumps, car bumpers, crates, piping, fences, door and window frames, moldings, lawn and garden products, lumber for decks, and, of course, new shopping bags.
The need is for more people to recycling more products more often.
Today there are nearly 12,000 locations across the U.S. where consumers can take their plastic bags and product wraps to be recycled, including Walmart, Target, and Lowe’s (look in the front of the stores). (Most curbsides don’t accept bags due their light weight, which causes them to easily get stuck in machinery.) More than 1,800 businesses actually recycle post-consumer plastics and most of these, interestingly, are food retailers.
The Firing Line: Bag Legislation
The need for plastic shopping bags is increasingly becoming a hot-button topic in all parts of the world. The concern is what to do about them exactly, primarily focusing on whether to tax or ban them.
South Africa led the charge in Africa with a ban on ultra-thin plastics and a tax on thicker plastics; other nations followed suit. China began charging for plastic bags in 2008 creating a two-thirds reduction. Ireland, most notably, instituted a tax on the bags in 2002 and drove their use down 95 percent (although people resorted to using trash bags, the sale of which jumped 400 percent!)
In the U.S. there are fires popping up everywhere. California passed the Plastic Bag Recycling Act of 2006 in response to its estimated 19 billion bags per use. It costs the state $25 million alone to make sure the bags end up in a landfill. The 2006 law requires supermarkets and large drugstores to create plastic bag recycling programs and to make reusable bags available.
San Francisco ('07) and Seattle ('11), however, are so far the only U.S. cities to outlaw plastic bag use. The city is looking to tighten its legislation on the bags; and Sunnyvale and Monterey are soon to enact bans on plastic in supermarkets and retailers as well as taxing paper bags up to 25 cents.
Elsewhere, the story is one of marginal victories or legislative slap-downs. Westport, Connecticut, banned plastic in grocery stores, and Edmond, Washington, banned them in retail stores. The North Carolina Outerbanks region banned all plastic at all retailers. Virginia legislators rejected taxation on plastic while the District of Columbia retains its five-cent levy on plastic bags begun in January 2010. Although citizens were disgruntled, consumption fell from 22.5 million bags to three million in the first month.
Is Paper Any Better?
The answer is “No”. Statistics show that paper is worse on the environment than plastic.
Let’s look at some facts. 1—Americans consume about 10 billion paper grocery bags each year, requiring 14 million trees. (Wait a minute: trees are major absorbers of greenhouse gases, but paper bag production produces these greenhouse gases.) Believe it or not, this is the more sustainable solution compared to the enormous amount of fossil fuels and raw materials used to produce plastic bags. 2—Paper production creates 70 percent more air pollutants than plastic contributing to acid rain and water pollution, as well as incredible stench. Paper creates 50 percent more water pollutants. 3—Paper bags require 20 times the water used to make plastic bags. 4—Paper bags are wasteful: for every seven trucks needed to deliver paper bags, only one is needed deliver the same number of plastic bags.
I used to be one of the many who think paper is the better option...it degrades, right? Well we’ve seen that they don’t because of landfill guidelines. Moreover, paper is the primary material we throw away: for every 100 pounds of trash we create 35 pounds is paper.
Unlike plastic, paper shopping bags cannot be recycled indefinitely. Paper bags can be recycle about 4-6 times before requiring virgin pulp being added to the process (the new pulp maintains the strength and quality of the fiber). Also, paper recycling requires almost 100 percent more energy than plastic recycling.
So with less than 20 percent of paper shopping bags ever being recycled, paper bags are money and environmental megabucks gone down the drain.
Not much more can be said for paper bags. The simple truth is paper bags and plastic bags are eco-cousins.
Reusable Bags: A Worthy Alternative?
The reusable bag, or bag for life, is resultant of the alarming environmental issues created by paper and plastic shopping bags. It may also be viewed as a return to the days before there were even paper bags when shoppers carried their own cloth bags for transporting goods.
Reusable bags avoid in degrees many of the issues paper and plastic present while creating unique ones. Reusable bags do require more energy than either paper (equivalent: 8 bags) or plastic (28 bags); but it does have a considerably longer lifespan although this hasn’t been measured.
One of the problems with this bag is similar to paper and plastic. Once the bag is out of service, it will only breakdown in a large scale composting facility because it will not decompose in landfills; and because less than 100 of these facilities exist in the U.S.—guess what?—most of them are headed to landfills. Some argue that recycling plastic bags is a better alternative to using reusable bags for this one reason.
Affecting how soon a reusable might arrive at the landfill is another factor: the material. If the bag is of low quality material, it won’t last long and will defeat the purpose of its purchase (for life). So consumers should be aware of the three primary sustainable options in a bag.
The first is PETE (or #1 plastic). This is a thumbs-up to the recycling industry since approximately 31 percent of plastic bottles in the U.S. are produced from PETE. These bags are generally durable and long-lasting. The second is cotton—either organic or, better, recycled. A consumer avoids dyes, pesticides, and herbicides found in conventional cotton. Recycled cotton evades enormous amounts of textile waste that enters landfills each year.
The final option is bags made from hemp, often referred to as a “super fiber”. Anything constructed of hemp usually outlasts its competition by several years. Additionally, these products hold their shape and resist mold and ultraviolet light.
The apparel industry also promotes the reusable shopping bag as sustainable fashion.
Food Safety Concerns
The one serious concern with reusable bags is the issue of food safety. Most people do not wash their bags after transporting goods, and repeated exposure to meats and vegetables presents an increased risk of foodborne illness.
Studies have shown reusable bags to contain high mold and bacteria levels as well as coliform and E. coli. Researchers recommend that consumers not store foods inside reusable bags in trunks where higher temperatures promote bacterial growth and to wash or bleach bags between uses. They also warn against using the bags for alternate purposes, like carrying books or gym clothes.
And the verdict is...
So again I ask: “Paper, plastic, or other?”
Taking a bag to carry something out of a store is an easy, almost mindless, thing; yet we never consider what happens for the rest of the life of that bag, which is truly forever.
Clearly, the better choice is a reusable bag, but its success depends on the decisions of the consumer. Plastic and paper bags…well they depend on drastically improved recycling efforts and actions to reduce demand.
What about you—what is your practice? Where do you stand on this issue?
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