Are plastic bags really THAT bad for the planet? This’ll surprise you.
8 Minute Read
Single-use items like plastic bags, straws, and water bottles are bad for the planet right? Yes.
So reusable alternatives are better… right? Not necessarily.
We all know that single-use plastic is bad. There’s no question about that. Plastic is made from fossil fuels. In addition, fossil fuels power the factories that pump out plastic products, so it’s quite the dirty little industry. After being used for a couple of minutes, plastic bags might get recycled once. But it’s probably just as likely to end up in the ocean, wrapped around a tree, or in the stomach of some poor animal minding it’s own god damn business. I know…it’s bleak.
So single-use plastic = bad
However, there are exceptions… like the need for single-use plastic in medical situations or in places where clean water isn’t accessible (Ok. Plastic water bottles, I’ll let you ride this one… but only this one time!). Unfortunately, sometimes single-use plastic is the only option. In some instances, we simply haven’t found a better alternative (yet).
So back to the initial question. If single-use plastic is bad, then the eco-friendly alternative must be reusable — right?
Well, again, it’s not so simple.
In order to really make that assessment, you have to look at a product’s entire life cycle: where and how it’s extracted, what resources go into making it, how much energy is required, how long it can be used (and reused), and where it will eventually end up.
If you’re simply looking at end-of-life, then yes, a plastic bag is worse than, say, an organic cotton tote bag that can technically biodegrade in the right conditions. A cotton tote bag is also less likely to be mistaken for food if it ends up in the ocean. However, that’s only one part of the equation. Let’s look at some examples.
TLDR: Reusable alternatives to single-use plastic are only better if you use them enough to offset the product’s entire life cycle compared to a single-use item.
Single-use plastic bags vs. reusable bags:
By now, you’ve probably been gifted at least 10 reusable tote bags. I’ve got so many, I don’t know what to do with them. From canvas tote bags to lightweight reusable bags, everyone wants you to carry around a bag with their brand on it. That’s why they’re so eager to give you one. But the sad truth is, for it to be environmentally better than that single-use plastic bag, you need to use it anywhere from 35 to 20,000 times depending on the bag.
If you’re just looking at climate change effects, a generic cotton tote bag must be used 52 times to be better than a single-use plastic bag. A reusable plastic grocery bag, like the one your local grocery might sell (e.g., Publix, Target, etc.), must be used at least 5 times.
So taking all things into consideration, if you forget your reusable grocery bags during your next trip to the store, it’s actually better to submit to the single-use plastic bag instead of buying a reusable tote at the checkout counter. Unless you plan to use that reusable bag at least 5 times. Keep in mind: these numbers only account for climate change. They don’t consider pollution, water usage for manufacturing and growing materials, and other factors. If you consider all of the factors, a reusable polypropylene bag (the woven ones at your local grocery) would need to be used 45 times to be better than a single-use plastic bag. And that cotton tote would need to be used 7100 times.
You can check out more info on the data behind this in this study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency. And if you wanna dive even deeper, you can compare their results to this study by the Environmental Agency in the UK. Both studies come to the same conclusion. But they differ on how many times certain bags need to be used to equal the footprint of a single-use plastic bag.
You have to look at a product’s entire life cycle: where and how it’s extracted, what resources go into making it, how much energy is required, how long it can be used (and reused), and where it will eventually end up.
Single-use plastic straws vs. reusable straws:
Like our friend the plastic bag, the plastic straw has gotten a bad rap over the past few years. Rightfully so. This is partly due to the “stop sucking” campaign, which used a slew of celebrities and alarming stats about plastic pollution in the ocean to encourage people to stop using plastic straws. Although the campaign only focused on plastic straws, it was a real tipping point in the world’s awareness around plastic pollution. This has lead to a lotta innovation when it comes to single-use plastic alternatives. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back [pun majorly intended]. Although in this case, I think it was the straw that broke the turtle’s nose.
OK, enough corny jokes. Back to plastic straws. Are they really THAT bad, or are reusable straws even worse? The answer is: it depends.
One study published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment found that glass and steel straws “require 23–39 and 37–63 uses respectively to break even with climate change emissions” of single-use plastic straws. This averages out to 31 uses for glass straws and 50 uses for stainless steel straws. Now keep in mind that these numbers only relate to effects of climate change. They don’t consider all of the factors (like water usage and raw materials).
Stainless steel, for example, requires mining and extraction and has a much heavier transportation weight than plastic. Plus, every time someone uses their reusable straw, they have to wash it, which means additional water is used between each use. An undergraduate research study took a look into stainless steel straws and put together a great infographic on the different factors that go into its life cycle. You can check it out here.
So, like our plastic friend above, reusable straws are great. But don’t buy a million of them, and make sure you use them A LOT to justify each one’s footprint. NowThis Earth put together a super helpful video that breaks down the myths and facts behind plastic and reusable straws.
HARD ANSWER: Find the most eco-friendly option for *your* habits:
As you can see, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. If you use a ton of plastic bags and plastic straws and other single-use items, then yes, a reusable option is the best for you. But if you rarely use these things, then a plastic straw, bag, or cup is actually better than buying a reusable. This is because your infrequent use of that item doesn’t justify their water, energy, and eventual waste.
So, here’s your new eco-friendly game plan:
- Refuse both single-use plastic bags and straws (and other single-use items) as well as any reusable ones you don’t need.
- Use any supplies you already have, whether that be plastic bags for bin liners or any plastic or disposable straws.
- If you have a frequent need for things like straws, water bottles, or bags, then get yourself a reusable option. But! Know how many times you need to use that item to make it a more eco-friendly decision than simply using a single-use plastic item.
- And most importantly! If, once in a blue moon, you find yourself without your reusable bag or straw and you need one, don’t beat yourself up about that one-time situation. It’s better to use it that one time instead of buying another reusable on the spot to add to the already abundant supply you have. This also helps with some of the eco guilt that tends to arise in these situations. Remember, you’re not a bad person if you forget your reusable bag, straw, or water bottle.
Don’t forget about other single-use items:
Although there haven’t been studies on this yet, I think it’s safe to say we can apply the same data above for other single-use items. Should you be using a reusable face mask or a single-use one? A reusable water bottle? Reusable utensils? While the materials differ, the principles and factors are the same. If it’s something you use regularly, opt for reusable and use it as often as humanly possible. But if you get caught off guard and need to opt for a single-use item, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s better to use the single-use item once (yes, even if it’s plastic) than buy another reusable that you honestly don’t need and won’t use enough to justify its environmental footprint.
Just because something is reusable, it doesn’t mean it’s better than a disposable option. You have to look at the entire life cycle to see what’s required to make that item. Ask yourself: How many times can it be used? What happens at the end of its life? A good rule of thumb is to buy fewer items and use what you have as much as humanly possible. And avoid single-use items whenever possible.
You’re not a bad person if you forget your reusable bag, straw, or water bottle.