Sustainability Showdown: Paper or plastic bags? The sustainable choice is to reuse

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

You’re in line at Trader Joe’s, admiring all the lovely sustainable goods you’ve purchased. The cashier scans your sustainably-crafted bottle of wine, vegan cream cheese and organic grapes. You can’t wait to wrap your leftovers in your new beeswax cloth because you’re too #woke to use tupperware or cling wrap.

“Do you need a bag?” the Hawaiian shirt-wearing cashier asks you.

Well, do you? Do you take a paper bag? Or do you desperately try to shove your purchases into your already-overfilled backpack?

In a perfect world — or at least my perfect world — I can fit everything I bought into my backpack. But, there are times when my appetite outweighs my need to go bagless, and I give in. I feel guilty — sometimes so much so that I’ll buy a Trader Joe’s tote on the spot. I could always use more totes. Sometimes I opt for the paper bag and still feel guilty. At least I feel a bit better knowing I paid a good $0.10 for that paper bag. And hey, it’s a paper bag, which we all agreed is better for the environment than plastic, right?

Maybe not.

California was the first state to enact a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, and issued a 10-cent fee for reusable plastic and paper bags.

The logic behind this was to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags when shopping, reducing the amount of single-use plastic bags, and in turn decreasing our collective carbon footprint.

I’m not going to make an argument that single-use plastic bags are the way to go. But I am going to offer some interesting facts that certainly shocked my environmental heart.

In 2007, the Environment Agency of the United Kingdom conducted an exhaustive study trying to answer the question, “Paper or plastic?” It offered some surprising results.

The study compared different types of plastic bags, including single-use and reinforced plastic bags that are meant to be reused, as well as paper bags and cotton bags.

The study found that paper bags would have to be reused three times to ensure that they have a lower global warming potential than a single-use plastic bag that is not reused at all. On the other hand, cotton bags would have to be reused 131 times.

Suddenly, having nearly 40 totes feels very wasteful and bad for the environment.

This isn’t to say that you should toss your totes and start using single-use plastic bags. Plastic bags are still awful for the environment. Most recycling facilities can’t handle the small bags because they clog up the plant’s machinery. The main problem with plastic bags is that they often float out of proper waste streams and into nature, mainly the ocean, because of their lightness.

In November, a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Indonesia. As National Geographic reported, the whale “had consumed a horrifying collection of plastic trash, including 115 drinking cups, 25 plastic bags, plastic bottles, two flip-flops and a bag containing more than 1,000 pieces of string.”

The main consideration in the debate of paper, plastic or cotton bags is to reuse whichever bag as much as possible. Plastic bags can be used as trash can liners. Unbleached paper bags can be recycled or composted, since they’re made out of organic materials. Cotton bags can be reused for purposes other than carrying groceries.

Remembering to bring a bag with you wherever you go — be it paper, plastic or cotton — is critical to reducing our environmental impact. Better yet, buy in bulk and shop less!

Katherine Wiles is a senior writing about environmentalism and sustainability. Her column, “Sustainability Showdown,” runs every other Wednesday.