Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Is it really green?

I remember when stores first started saying, "Paper or plastic?"- I had the following conversation more than once:
"I guess you don't care about the Earth."
"Actually, if not reused and recycled properly, paper bags are worse for the planet than plastic."
"That's not true! What do you know about it, anyway?"
"I work in the industry."
"Well, the Vice President says using paper bags is one of the things we can do to save the planet. Who knows more about it, you or Al Gore?"
According to the Daily Mail, I did know more about it than Al Gore- paper bags need to be reused three times to fall below the environmental impact level of plastic bags- and that's assuming you didn't reuse the plastic bag. And that's simply not possible, because the paper handles come off of an third of them between the store and the car- I've learned to stoop and waddle when using paper bags, so that when they rip or the straps fail they'll only have a inch to fall, and hopefully the groceries won't break open.

Then came the cloth bags, with things like "I heart the Earth" on them- now there's a reusable bag that's definitely an improvement over the plastic! Or maybe not... "As a greater amount of energy goes into making a cloth carrier than a polythene one, a cotton bag has to be used 131 times before it has the same environmental impact than its plastic counterpart. And if a plastic bag is re-used as a bin liner, a cotton bag has to be used 173 times - nearly every day of the year - before its ecological impact is as low as a plastic bag on a host of factors including greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetime." I don't know how they got "nearly every day of the year", but if you normally shop once a week, you'd have to use the same cloth bag for three and a half years just to break even with the plastic bag. And that doesn't count the environmental impact of the vivid plastisol designs silkscreened on them- you don't want to know the impact of those chemicals!

Then there's those damn Compact Flourescent bulbs. I've written about them before, here and here, but here's a simpler way to think about it: you've heard the environmentalists' slogan, "Think globally, buy locally"? Well, no CFLs are made locally- all CFLs are imported, all of them.

I know what I'm about to say can be applied to a whole lot of things, but... why can't we think things through before committing so much to them?


Christine Leigh said...

Well, here's the thing.

You accumulate plastic bags for those 173 times you're using it. You're still using the cloth bag, so working down the carbon footprint of the cloth bag is different than building up the environmental impact of using plastic bags the entire time.

I'm actually pretty certain that my reusable cloth bags, which I've had 2 years, have reached that quota. It's not so hard, once you change your habits.

Joel Monka said...

You may well have reached the break-even point yourself, but the study quoted in the article says that the average cloth bag is reused only 51 times. If that's true, and half the bags only reach to less than a third of the way to breakeven, then the whole program is a colossal failure so far.

I use the cloth bags myself for a lot more than just groceries- they're just plain good totes for general purpose use. But I haven't been using them long enough yet to get a sense of whether they will last long enough to actually save energy. In the meantime, I still buy some plastic bags, because I reuse them as well- they're just the right size to work as trash can liners for the smaller bins in the bathroom, under my desk, etc.- I haven't had to buy trashbags in quite a while.

Chalicechick said...

I mostly use cloth bags to keep clutter in. When I run out of bgs, I put them in the car, drive to goodwill and restart the process. For groceries, when I use a bag at all I use plastic bags because I have a dog. Oddly, no grocery clerk has ever given me guff about it.

And I'm not sure why using something 173 times is using it "nearly every day of the year" but whatever.

Tom Wilson said...

Just a data point - I have two sturdy cloth bags that Safeway was selling years ago, that I have had for at least fifteen years. Maybe the archtypal cloth bag isn't so well made?

Joel Monka said...

You raise an interesting point, Tom. I have cloth bags from several different stores, plus printed cloth bags that were convention premiums, and there's a wide range in quality. Surprisingly, the convention freebie isn't the lowest quality! I have no idea which ones they study was looking at.

Tracie the Red said...

This is why I'm learning to take roving and spin my own thread, spin that into yarn, and knit or crochet my own shopping bags. :D

While we're at "is it really green" how about doing a post on how green or not green the manufacture of things like solar panels are? I'd like to see if they are as green as some people claim.