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Jesse Muller

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution back in the 18th century, countries all over the world have been polluting our planet, causing extensive damage to our environment and ecosystems. Only in the past few decades have people been aware of the effects human pollution can cause. Today many people have individually decided to make a change and help the environment for the sake of the world and future generations. One of the most popular of these changes is the elimination and replacement of disposable plastic shopping bags which contribute to CO2 pollution and climate change. While the effects of disposable shopping bags are evident, the alternatives to plastic can actually cause more harm than the plastic itself. 

Some of the most common alternatives to plastic shopping bags are tote bags and reusable bags made out of cotton or other organic materials. Although these alternative bags might seem like a good idea, since they are both reusable and biodegradable, they contribute to other environmental problems. One of these issues is how these bags are made. Although the production of reusable bags may not produce as much CO2 as the production of plastic, they require agents that contribute to other environmental problems. The British government performed a study in 2011 that showed that you would have to use a tote bag a total of 131 times before it was better for climate change than using a plastic grocery bag once. The Danish government found that you would have to use a conventional cotton bag 7,100 times and organic cotton bags 20,000 times before they are better for the environment than plastic grocery bags. These alternatives actually may end up being worse for the environment if people use them to replace plastic shopping bags. 

One major positive benefit of these reusable bags is that they are, in fact, reusable. However, if not handled carefully, these bags can spread bacteria and other harmful substances. As many reusable bag owners know, reusable bags need to be cleaned on a somewhat regular basis. The cleaning process is usually based on the material of the bag and the amount of times it is used. A study by the University of Arizona found that 51% of all reusable bags contained coliform bacteria, and 12% contained E. coli, indicating the presence of fecal matter and other pathogens. This could escalate quickly as the bacteria could spread to the food, other bags, and surfaces. The Reason Foundation wrote that reusing bags in the warmer months could lead to an increase in bacteria. Despite this, the same study from the University of Arizona found that 97% of individuals admitted that they never washed their reusable bags. If there's one thing everyone learned in 2020, it is that we need to take matters of hygiene and cleanliness seriously. However, not all people share the same concerns. Reusable bags are not sanitary due to people’s indifference for washing bags. The connection is clear to see; unwashed bags can result in the growth of bacteria and diseases that can spread. People either fail to see that this can happen or ignore it and face the consequences.

Another alternative to plastic shopping bags is paper bags. However, the paper is just as bad as its reusable counterparts, if not worse. Paper bags may seem like they would be a better choice, but a closer look into their production will show that they require cutting down and processing trees, which involves lots of water, toxic chemicals, fuel, and heavy machinery. In the 2011 UK study, they found that paper bags were also more likely to take up 9 times more space in landfills than plastic bags. It doesn’t just end there: paper bags are more prone to ripping, which means that paper bags are more likely to be wasted or thrown out. Since many stores are aware of this issue, they try to combat rips by “double bagging” their customers' products with two or more paper bags. This doubles, and can even triple, the paper bag usage in stores. Additionally, the elastic property of plastic allows it to stretch to accommodate more items. Paper, on the other hand, rips when stretched and cannot hold as many items as plastic. As a result, even more paper bags are used, when a person would have been able to fit the items into fewer plastic bags. The need for so many paper bags, especially considering their environmental impact, makes them a bad alternative to plastic.  

We can’t ignore the fact that plastic shopping bags have their own issues, such as not being biodegradable and releasing large amounts of CO2 when they are produced, incinerated, or recycled. However, as of now, there are no better alternatives that are either as environmentally friendly or clean as plastic bags. So the next time a friend tries to convince you to use some sort of alternative to help the environment, tell them although their intentions are good, they can actually do more harm than good by switching.


Edwards, Dr. Chris, and Jonna Meyhoff Fry. “Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006.” Published by the Environment Agency. Evidence, no. SC030148, 2011.

Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark. “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Carrier Bags.” Edited by Valentina Bisinella, et al. Environmental Project, no. 1985, 2018.

Williams, David L., et al. “Assessment of the Potential for Cross-contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags.” Food Protection Trends, vol. 31, no. 8, 2011, pp. 508-513.

In Defense of Plastic Shopping Bags: Academics
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